Italy backs down on 3 migrant ships, 4th heads to Corsica


ROME (AP) — A European humanitarian group said Wednesday its migrant rescue ship was heading toward the French island of…

ROME (AP) — A European humanitarian group said Wednesday its migrant rescue ship was heading toward the French island of Corsica in hopes that France will offer its 234 passengers a safe port, after Italy backed down and allowed migrants from three other rescue ships to disembark on Italian soil.

France still had not publicly offered the Ocean Viking a safe port, but spokesman Francesco Creazzo of the SOS Mediterranee group said the Norwegian-flagged ship was hoping it would eventually do so.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni jumped the gun somewhat and issued a statement Tuesday evening thanking France for taking the Ocean Viking in, prompting a public critique of Italy’s apparent maneuvering on French public radio Wednesday.

French government spokesman Olivier Veran told France Info radio that the Ocean Viking “is intended to be welcomed in Italy” since it was in Italian territorial waters and said Italy’s refusal to allow passengers to disembark was “unacceptable.”

Since Italy is the top beneficiary of the European Union financial solidarity system, he demanded that “Italy plays its role and respects its European commitments.”

By late Tuesday, the remaining passengers on three other humanitarian-operated ships that Italy had initially refused to take in had disembarked at Italian ports. The last was the Humanity 1, operated by the SOS Humanity group, which disembarked its 35 passengers in the Sicilian port of Catania.

There was no immediate explanation for Italy’s U-turn, but legal experts and the humanitarian groups noted that under maritime law, all people found at sea in distress are entitled to access the closest safe port where they can then apply for asylum.

The new hard-right government of Premier Giorgia Meloni had initially only allowed migrants deemed “vulnerable” to disembark, and intended to send the rest of the passengers back out to sea. But the two ships docked at Catania — the Humanity 1 and the Geo Berents — refused to leave port.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi had adopted measures saying the flag country of each charity-operated ship was responsible for providing a safe port, not Italy. Charity groups, however, said the measure patently violated maritime law and some had launched legal action against the government.

“We are relieved that the people can go ashore and that all those rescued from distress at sea have finally been assigned a place of safety, as required by maritime law,” said SOS Humanity’s Till Rummenhohl, who is in charge of ship operations for the Humanity 1. “However, we are appalled by the blatant disregard of the law and of human rights by Italian authorities.”

Meloni was defiant about Italy’s hard line. In the statement prematurely announcing the French decision to open its port to the Ocean Viking, she said it was important to “continue this line of European collaboration with the countries most exposed to find a shared solution.”

“The immigration emergency is a European issue and must be dealt with as such, with full respect of human rights and the principle of legality,” she said.


Sylvie Corbet contributed from Paris.

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