(Update: adds info on Catania disembarkations)
Paris/Rome, Nov 9 (EFE).- Italy’s decision to turn away an NGO vessel carrying 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean Sea is “unacceptable” and should be reversed, the French government said Wednesday.
Olivier Véran, spokesman for the government, told FrancInfo that it was Italy’s “responsibility” to welcome the migrants on board the Ocean Viking, a Norwegian-flagged vessel chartered by the French NGO SOS Méditerranée.
The unusual criticism came the morning after Italy’s new prime minister, the hard-right Giorgia Meloni, thanked French president Emmanuel Macron for apparently agreeing to open France’s ports to the Ocean Viking.
The French government spokesman said Wednesday that Italy’s decision to shun the vessel was “unacceptable” and urged its neighbor to “honor its European commitments” and permit it to dock.
Pressed to clarify whether France had assigned a port to the Ocean Viking, as requested by the ship’s operators, Verán said negotiations were ongoing.
SOS Méditerranée released a statement Tuesday in which director of operations Xavier Lauth warned that peoples’ lives were being put at risk.
“The situation onboard Ocean Viking reached a critical limit,” Lauth said.
“Physical and psychological well-being of survivors and crew have been exhausted by over two weeks of blockage at sea. It is now a humanitarian emergency needing an immediate response,” he added in a statement that also pointed out that some of the migrants had spent 18 days on the vessel since their rescue.
The Ocean Viking was due to arrive “in international waters close to Corsica” on Thursday, the statement said.
Hundreds of migrants on two other rescue vessels, the Geo Barents, operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the Humanity 1, which had been held at the Italian port city of Catania for four days, have finally been allowed to disembark after the Italian government reluctantly reversed a controversial decision to only allow “vulnerable” migrants – essentially women, minors and sick people – off the ships.
“We fought for them for over two weeks and now the last of these wonderful people from the Humanity 1 were allowed to come ashore,” the head of the SOS Humanity mission, Till Rummenhold said on Twitter.
“That was big. Humanity triumphs over injustice. The way it was always meant to be.”
Italy’s new far-right government’s so-called “selective disembarkation” had been widely criticized by European leaders, human rights activists and Italian bishops as being “illegal” and “inhumane”.
Italy’s infrastructure minister, anti-migrant firebrand Matteo Salvini, had pushed for the policy of only allowing vulnerable people from disembarking the migrant rescue vessels, and has stated that others should be taken to the nation whose flag is flown by the ships.
Prime minister Giorgia Meloni has pledged to stop migration flows from the Middle East and North Africa. EFE