Toulon (France) (AFP), November 12 – Tensions over migration erupted between EU countries on Saturday after people on a rescue ship turned back by Italy landed in France.
The Ocean Viking, operated by a French NGO, had picked up more than 230 migrants at sea near the Libyan coast before spending weeks looking for a port to welcome them.
France allowed the boat to dock at the southern port of Toulon on Friday after Rome denied it access.
The standoff has inflamed a dispute over how EU countries handle migration across the Mediterranean.
Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta on Saturday criticized the European system for managing the flow of migrants and called on the European Commission to intervene.
They slammed the “disappointing” results of previous EU commitments to a scheme which in its first year would have seen 10,000 people relocated from European countries they first reached.
“The mechanism is slow” and the figure of 10,000 relocations, which has not been reached, “represents only a very small part of the real number of irregular arrivals during this year”, they specified.
Greece’s migration minister and the interior ministers of Cyprus, Italy and Malta made the comments in a joint statement issued in Rome.
These countries have been advocating for a mandatory relocation system for years.
They said that as states where migrants first enter Europe, they bear “the most difficult burden in managing migration flows in the Mediterranean, in full respect of international obligations and the rules of the EU”. ‘EU’.
And they pointed the finger at humanitarian NGOs, saying that their “private vessels act in complete autonomy vis-à-vis the competent state authorities”.
The Ocean Viking ship, operated by SOS Méditerranée, left for maintenance in another port after the migrants disembarked in Toulon, authorities said.
In a few weeks, he should return to save more migrants in the Mediterranean.
French authorities said the last of the 230 passengers disembarked on Friday evening. Four other people were evacuated by helicopter earlier in the week.
Among the passengers, 189 people – including 23 women and 13 minors – were taken to a holiday camp transformed into a refuge on the peninsula of Giens about twenty kilometers from the military port of Toulon.
– ‘I needed to be on solid ground’ –
Among them was an 18-year-old Pakistani man, who clutched a trash bag containing his only belongings. Imran – a pseudonym – said he had been at sea for 21 days and felt exhausted.
He wondered how long he could stay in France.
“They didn’t tell us anything,” he said.
“As long as we are no longer in Libya or at sea, I agree with everything. I needed to be on solid ground.
His most pressing concern, he said, was to let his family know he was still alive.
The refuge has been designated a special “international waiting zone” which is not part of French territory and from which migrants are not allowed to leave until their asylum application has been processed.
French authorities said all of the new arrivals had expressed a wish to seek asylum.
They will have to undergo security checks, including by France’s domestic intelligence services, before they can be interviewed by the country’s refugee agency, whose representatives were due to arrive on Saturday.
Another passenger, the first to disembark from the Ocean Viking on Friday, is being treated in a French hospital for poor health.
A total of 44 unaccompanied minors – mostly “young teenagers” – have been handed over to French social services and are not staying at the Giens shelter, local official Evence Richard said.
Of all the passengers disembarked, 175 must leave France and go to 11 other countries.
Germany is to take in 80 of the migrants, while Bulgaria, Croatia, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Norway, Portugal and Romania have also agreed to take part.
The Ocean Viking first sought access to the Italian coast, which is closest to where the migrants were picked up, saying sanitary conditions on board were rapidly deteriorating.
Italy refused, saying other countries should shoulder more of the burden of hosting the thousands of migrants trying to reach Europe from North Africa each year.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration says 1,891 migrants have died or gone missing so far this year as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean in hopes of a better life in Europe.