Italy's interior minister expresses regret over migrant ship row with France

Italy's interior minister expresses regret over migrant ship row with France

Italy's interior minister said on Wednesday that he regretted tensions with Paris over migrants, which soared last week after a charity ship the country turned away docked in southern France to disembark around 230 people rescued at sea.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said the Ocean Viking vessel, which has a Norwegian flag and is run by non-governmental organisation (NGO) SOS Mediterranée, "autonomously" decided to head towards the French coast, after spending days off the island of Sicily.

"Italy never aimed for such a decision, which created international tensions... and could produce repercussions on migration policies at the European level," Piantedosi told the upper house.

France accused the newly formed right-wing government in Rome of breaking a bond of trust and violating international laws on migrant safeguards, saying it would not take in the 3,000 migrants it had previously pledged to accept from Italy.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni responded by describing Paris's reaction as "incomprehensible and unjustified". The row appeared to cool down only on Monday after talks between Italian and French presidents Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron.

SOS Mediterranée reacted to Piantedosi on Twitter, saying that Italy left it with "no other choice but to ask France for a safe port."

Piantedosi, a career civil servant and Independent, insisted that under international law Italy had no duty to take charge of migrants rescued by "private vessels" and said charity ships flying the flag of other states should turn to them for assistance.

"Italy has always emphasised the need for migrant arrivals not to weigh only on the countries at the external border of Europe," Piantedosi said, also criticising insufficient relocations under an EU burden-sharing scheme.

He also stated that the country was considering offering migration channels to countries that accept repatriations and help prevent sea departures.

"The aim would be tackling migrant smuggling and at the same time strengthening legal entry channels," he said.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in migrant landings this year, with almost 93,000 people arriving so far in 2022, compared with 59,300 in the same period last year. Around 15% were picked up by charity vessels.

However, the country last year admitted fewer refugees as a percentage of its population compared with EU neighbours such as France, Germany and Spain, as shown by data from think-tank ISPI, and in the last two years processed fewer asylum requests.