France accepted the Ocean Viking after Italy refused the ship entry

Toulon (France) (AFP) - A rescue ship carrying 230 migrants docked at the French port of Toulon on Friday amid a blazing row between France and Italy over which country is responsible for them.

The Ocean Viking, operated by a French NGO, had picked up the migrants at sea near the Libyan coast before spending weeks seeking a port to accept them.

France had never before allowed a rescue vessel carrying migrants from the Mediterranean to land on its coast, but did so this time because Italy had refused access.

The rescue came a day after French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said that the migrants were Italy’s responsibility under EU rules, and that the French move was an “exceptional” measure.

He said Italy’s refusal to accept the migrants was “incomprehensible” and that there would be “severe consequences” for relations with Italy which he said had “lacked humanity”.

- ‘End of an ordeal’ -

On Friday, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni condemned what she called an “aggressive reaction” by the French government, telling reporters that it was “incomprehensible and unjustified”.

The Ocean Viking ship had initially sought access to Italy’s coast, which is closest to where the migrants were picked up, saying health and sanitary conditions onboard were rapidly worsening.

The migrants were picked up by the charity ship off the Libyan coast as they tried to reach Europe

Italy refused, saying other nations needed to shoulder more of the burden for taking in the thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa every year.

“Everybody is very, very tired, but also relieved to set foot on land, it’s the end of an ordeal,” Laurence Bondard, a member of SOS Mediterranee, the NGO operating the Operation Viking, told AFP.

But the organisation also said that migrant ships should not have to make the long journey to France in future rescues.

“It is wrong that people disembark at such a great distance from the rescue locations,” SOS Mediterranee president Francois Thomas told reporters.

Operations director Xavier Lauth said the ship would resume rescue missions “because we don’t accept that this sea becomes a cemetery”.

The migrants, more than 50 of whom are children, were taken to an international waiting zone pending the processing of requests for asylum.

They would not be allowed to leave the zone until the process was completed in about three weeks, the government said. Asylum interviews were to start Saturday.

The shelter, a short drive from the port, was heavily guarded, an AFP photographer said.

Some 600 police were deployed for the ship’s arrival, with the Red Cross in charge of humanitarian aid.

Some of the 230 migrants are to remain in France, with others to be taken to fellow EU states

Meloni, head of Italy’s most right-wing government in decades, has appeared ready to push the dispute to the top of the European agenda.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi Thursday said the request had been for “234 migrants, when Italy has taken in 90,000 just this year”.

Nine European nations have committed to hosting two-thirds of the migrants, Darmanin said Thursday, with the remaining third staying in France.

In retaliation for Italy’s stance, France has suspended a plan to take 3,500 refugees currently in Italy, part of a European burden-sharing accord, and urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.

- Stricter border checks -

French police said Friday it had also reinforced controls at several Italian border crossings.

The flare-up of tensions echoes European migrant disputes four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron clashed with Italy’s populist interior minister Matteo Salvini.

France had insisted that under international maritime law, Rome had to take in the Ocean Viking.

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

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 volunteered to accept them.

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