Hundreds of rescued migrants have finally been allowed to disembark in Italy after a standoff between Rome and humanitarian groups.
The Italian government had backed down after initially denying entry to any migrants on three boats who were not “vulnerable”.
By Tuesday, all 747 passengers on board the Humanity 1 (run by the German NGO SOS Humanity) and the Geo Barents (run by Médecins Sans Frontières) had disembarked due to their physical and psychological condition.
A third ship — the Rise Above operated by Germany’s Mission Lifeline — successfully disembarked all 89 people earlier in the day.
Meanwhile, the Ocean Viking vessel operated by SOS Méditerranée said it was heading towards the French island of Corsica.
The organisation’s director general Sophie Beau said the situation on board had reached a “critical stage” with the risk of “loss of human life”.
The European Commission stated on Wednesday evening that the refugees onboard the Ocean Viking must be allowed to “immediately disembark” — an unusual move for the EU’s executive as immigration decisions are a national issue.
Officials in both Corsica and the French port city of Marseille have said they would welcome the 234 passengers who have been on board the Norwegian-flagged ship for 18 days.
The Ocean Viking is expected to dock in French territory on Thursday.
French government spokesman: Italy’s stance ‘unacceptable’
Yet, France has still not publicly offered the Ocean Viking a safe port, although government spokesman Olivier Véran has indicated that the ship would be received.
In a seemingly premature move, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni thanked the French government on Tuesday for taking in the ship.
Rome had stated that European countries should share the responsibility for the intake of migrants found in the Mediterranean Sea.
“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,” Meloni said.
“We want to say how much we appreciate France’s decision to take its share of responsibility for the migration emergency, which until now has been on the shoulders of Italy and some other Mediterranean countries, by opening its ports to the Ocean Viking.”
But Meloni’s statement prompted criticism. Véran told France Info radio on Wednesday that Italy’s refusal to allow Ocean Viking passengers to disembark was “unacceptable”.
“The boat is currently in Italian territorial waters. There are extremely clear European rules which have been accepted by the Italians who are, in fact, the first beneficiary of a European financial solidarity mechanism,” he said.
Paris and Rome previously clashed in 2018 over the Aquarius vessel, which eventually made port in Valencia, Spain.
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.
French lawmakers have also criticised the government’s stance, arguing that by welcoming NGO ships, the country would encourage more migrant smuggling.
Italy’s new far-right government initially said it would only allow “vulnerable” migrants — such as children or sick people — to leave the boats.
Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi had adopted measures that stated the flag country of each ship was responsible for providing a safe port, not Italy.
Two of the migrant rescue vessels — the Humanity 1 and the Geo Berents — docked in Catania for the vulnerability selection process but then refused to leave the Sicilian port.
“We are appalled by the blatant disregard of the law and of human rights by Italian authorities,” a spokesperson for SOS Humanity said.
The Spanish NGO Salvamento Maritimo Humanitario even said it would postpone a planned sea rescue mission due to the risk of its ship being seized by Italian authorities.
The refusal to accept all the passengers on these ships “puts them in danger and violates Italy’s human rights obligations,” Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
Italy has seen a sharp increase in migrant arrivals this year, with almost 88,700 people landing in 2022, compared to 56,500 in the same period last year.
Only 14% of the migrants who entered the country this year were rescued by humanitarian NGO ships, according to the Italian interior ministry.
Meanwhile, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said at least 1,891 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean since the start of this year.