France to let migrant rescue ship dock at Toulon

France said on Thursday that it would allow a rescue ship carrying more than 200 migrants to dock on its southern coast and disembark its passengers, harshly criticising Italy for failing to take them in.

France to let migrant rescue ship dock at Toulon
People on the deck of the Ocean Viking rescue ship in the Gulf of Catania in the Mediterranean Sea in international waters on November 6th, 2022. (Photo by VINCENZO CIRCOSTA / AFP)

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the Ocean Viking, whose passengers include 57 children, would be granted access to the military port of Toulon after a deepening standoff with Italy over whose responsibility it was to take them in.

Visibly angered by Rome’s refusal to accept the ship, Darmanin called its stance “incomprehensible”.

The ship “is located without any doubt in Italy’s search and rescue zone”, he said, adding that “it was Italy’s job to immediately designate a port to welcome this ship”.

The French-Italian tensions are the latest episode in a European standoff over where to disembark migrants picked up after trying to reach Europe from North Africa, with Rome increasingly frustrated at taking in the bulk of those rescued.

Speaking after a cabinet meeting, Darmanin also warned that “it is obvious that there will be extremely severe consequences for bilateral relations” with Italy.

He said France had already decided to freeze a plan to take 3,500 migrants currently in Italy, part of a European burden-sharing accord, and urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.

Earlier Thursday, France said it was disembarking four of the 234 migrants aboard the Ocean Viking via helicopter for health reasons.

The charity that operates the ship, SOS Mediterranee, had made the request to French authorities after refusals by Italy to allow port access for the past week, even as sanitary conditions worsened onboard.

After Darmanin’s announcement, SOS Mediterranee said it felt “relief tainted with bitterness”.

A one-off decision

A spokeswoman for the charity told AFP earlier that “one of the patients is unstable and no longer reacting to treatment since October 27”.

“The two others were injured in Libya and because of this long wait for treatment, they risk having long-term health issues,” she said.

France had insisted that under international maritime law, Rome must grant access to the Ocean Viking and the 234 distressed migrants it rescued, not least after it granted access this week to three other rescue ships carrying hundreds of people.

Darmanin said the decision to allow the ship to dock, after two weeks at sea, was “exceptional” and would not guide future action.

But the arrival of Giorgia Meloni as the head of Italy’s most right-wing government in decades could also spark a repeat of the European migrant fights of four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron in particular clashed with Italy’s populist interior minister Matteo Salvini.

Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said this week that he was sending a signal to EU nations that they must play an even bigger part.

Rome wants “an agreement to establish, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are relocated to various countries,” Tajani said ahead of a meeting of EU ministers next week.

Volker Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also urged a rapid disembarkment and warned that “politics should not be pursued at the expense of people in distress.”

Under international law, ships in distress or carrying rescued passengers must be allowed entry in the nearest port of call — which means Italy and often Malta are shouldering the burden of taking in those rescued after trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.

In June, around a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to take in migrants who arrive in Italy and other main entry points.

So far this year, 164 asylum seekers have been moved from Italy to other nations in the bloc that have volunteered to accept  them.

But that is a tiny fraction of the more than 88,000 that have reached its shores so far this year, of which just 14 percent arrived after being rescued by NGO vessels, according to the Italian authorities.

According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, 1,891 migrants have died or disappeared while trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.

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Burkina junta chief denies diplomatic split from France

Burkina Faso's junta leader said on Friday his country had not severed diplomatic ties with France, which he has asked to withdraw its forces, and denied Russian Wagner mercenaries were in the country.

Burkina junta chief denies diplomatic split from France

Former colonial power France had special forces based in the capital Ouagadougou, but its presence had come under intense scrutiny as anti-French sentiment in the region grows, with Paris withdrawing its ambassador to Burkina over the junta’s demands.

“The end of diplomatic agreements, no!” Captain Ibrahim Traore said in a television interview with Burkinabe journalists. “There is no break in diplomatic relations or hatred against a particular state.”

Traore went on to deny that there were mercenaries from the Wagner Group deployed in Burkina Faso, even as the junta has nurtured ties with Moscow.

Wagner, an infamous Russian mercenary group founded in 2014, has been involved in conflicts in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Ukraine.

“We’ve heard everywhere that Wagner is in Ouagadougou,” he said, adding that it was a rumour “created so that everybody would distance themselves from us”.

“We have our Wagner, it is the VDP that we recruit,” he said, referring to the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland civilian auxiliaries. “They are our Wagner.”

He said that “all the people want is their sovereignty, to live with dignity. It doesn’t mean leaving one country for another.”

Paris confirmed last month that its special forces troops, deployed to help fight a years-long jihadist insurgency, would leave within a month.

Bloody conflict

A landlocked country in the heart of West Africa’s Sahel, Burkina Faso is one of the world’s most volatile and impoverished countries.

It has been struggling with a jihadist insurgency that swept in from neighbouring Mali in 2015. Thousands of civilians, troops and police have been killed, more than two million people have fled their homes, and around 40 percent of the country lies outside the government’s control.

Anger within the military at the mounting toll sparked two coups in 2022, the most recent of which was in September, when 34-year-old Traore seized power.

He is standing by a pledge made by the preceding junta to stage elections for a civilian government by 2024.

After the ruling junta in Mali forced French troops out last year, the army officers running neighbouring Burkina Faso followed suit, asking Paris to empty its garrison.

Under President Emmanuel Macron, France was already drawing down its troops across the Sahel region, which just a few years ago numbered more than 5,000, backed up with fighter jets, helicopters and infantry fighting vehicles.

About 3,000 remain, but the forced departures from Mali and Burkina Faso — as well as the Central African Republic to the south last year — underline how anti-French winds are gathering force.