ROME -- A European humanitarian group said Wednesday its migrant rescue ship was heading to the French island of Corsica in hopes France will offer its 234 passengers a safe port, as a diplomatic standoff intensified after Italy relented and allowed migrants from three other rescue ships to disembark on Italian soil.
The European Commission added to the pressure to find a safe port for the Ocean Viking, issuing a statement late Wednesday demanding that the passengers — some of whom have been at sea for nearly three weeks — be allowed to immediately disembark “at the nearest place of safety.”
The statement was unusual since the Commission hasd remained quiet on the drama all week, refusing to get involved except to restate that it’s up to member countries to handle search and rescue operations and disembarkation matters, not Brussels.
Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni had jumped the gun and announced Tuesday that France had agreed to take the Ocean Viking in, even though the government had made no such pledge publicly. As of late Wednesday, France still had not offered a port, but Francesco Creazzo of the SOS Mediterranee group said the Norwegian-flagged ship was hoping it would eventually do so.
Officials in both Corsica and the French port city of Marseille said they would gladly take them in.
Meloni's premature announcement of a French agreement prompted the French government spokesman to publicly criticize the Italian maneuvering on public radio Wednesday.
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.
Meloni's hard-right government 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 that docked at Catania for the vulnerability selection process — the Humanity 1 and the Geo Berents — refused to leave port.
Italian news reports on Wednesday quoted Meloni as telling her Brothers of Italy lawmakers that she found it “surreal” that doctors who visited the migrants on the docked ships Tuesday had declared them all fragile and at risk of psychological distress — presumably the medical determination that allowed for them all to disembark. Meloni insisted the passengers were migrants, not shipwreck survivors.
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 a 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.
In Marseille, Mayor Benoit Payan urged the government in Paris to open a port to the Ocean Viking and said his city would be honored to take the migrants in.
“The castaways, children, women and men aboard the Ocean Viking, must be rescued,” he tweeted.
“France must open a port urgently and assume its responsibilities,” Payan said. “Marseille, faithful to its history, is ready."
Corsica, too, said it was prepared to do its part.
“It’s a simple and a basic duty of humanity,” tweeted Gilles Simeoni, president of the executive council on the French Mediterranean island.
Surk reported from Nice, France; Lorne Cook reported from Brussels.
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