Showdown between Paris and Rome on the Ocean Viking, a humanitarian ship stuck at sea


    Of the more than 1,000 migrants picked up at sea by four ambulance boats, after fleeing from Libya on makeshift boats, only those rescued by the Ocean Viking of the NGO SOS Méditerranée were still stranded on Wednesday off the coast of Italy.

    Docked in Catania since Sunday, the Geo Barents of Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and Humanity 1 of the German NGO of the same name were able to disembark all of their passengers on Tuesday evening. Initially the Italian authorities had only accepted women, children and sick people. The Rise Above landed all of its 89 survivors in Calabria on Tuesday.

    Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani confirmed on Wednesday that this sorting was a signal to force Europe to help Italy more.

    SOS Méditerranée, noting “the total impasse on the side of Italy”, which did not accede to any of its 43 requests for a safe port, had finally requested assistance from France on Tuesday. But the ship had “still no official response” Wednesday morning, NGO director Sophie Beau told AFP.

    The Ocean Viking, which has always remained in international waters, is “currently going up along the Sicilian coasts, towards the North and Sardinia”, she added.

    Tuesday evening, the services of the new Italian Prime Minister of the extreme right Giorgia Meloni had made it known that she thanked France, which, according to them, would have accepted to welcome the Ocean Viking. On Wednesday Antonio Tajani claimed in an interview that President Emmanuel Macron himself would have decided “to open the port of Marseille”.

    As of Tuesday evening, Paris had denied these assertions, denouncing the “unacceptable behavior” of Italy, “contrary to the law of the sea and the spirit of European solidarity”, according to a government source at AFP.

    For its part, the European Commission called for the “immediate disembarkation at the nearest safe port” of the 234 migrants, considering that “the situation on board the ship has reached a critical level and must be resolved urgently to avoid a humanitarian tragedy”. .

    – “Very clear international law” –

    “International law is very clear,” French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin also recalled on Friday: “When a boat asks to dock with shipwrecked people on board, it is the safest, nearest port that must welcome it, in this case Italy”.

    The president of the executive of Corsica Gilles Simeoni affirmed Tuesday that the island was “ready to temporarily welcome the Ocean Viking”. The mayor of Marseille Benoît Payan for his part told AFP on Wednesday “that it was the honor of France to welcome them”.

    A standoff had already opposed the Europeans to Italy four years ago, under the government of Matteo Salvini, on the reception of humanitarian boats collecting migrants. Paris and Rome were in particular hung around the fate of the Aquarius, the former ship of the NGO SOS Méditerranée, which had finally had to land in Valencia in Spain.

    With the arrival in Rome of the most right-wing government since the Second World War, which has pledged to observe a hard line vis-à-vis migrants, tensions have resumed.

    “We are witnessing a diplomatic standoff between France and Italy, which opens a breach towards other situations of this kind, because Italy is clearly calling into question the European agreement (of solidarity) which was in its favor”, observes to AFP the specialist researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri) Matthieu Tardis.

    Since June, a relocation system, which had already undergone a first phase in 2019, provides for a dozen member states, including France and Germany, to voluntarily welcome migrants who have arrived in countries such as Italy. , close to the Libyan coast.

    So far, 164 migrants have been relocated in 2022 from Italy to other member states, including 117 under the mechanism adopted in June. But Italy is demanding more support from other European countries, insisted Antonio Tajani.

    Some 88,100 migrants have arrived on the coast since January 1, of which only 14% via humanitarian ships, recalled the Italian Interior Ministry.

    Since the beginning of the year, 1,891 migrants have disappeared in the Mediterranean, including 1,337 in the central Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).