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France warns Italy of 'severe consequences' for rejecting migrants

People aboard the Ocean Viking ship watch a French Coast Guard boat approaching, November 10, 2022.

France says it will allow a ship transporting more than 200 refugees to dock at its southern coast amid a growing standoff with Italy over the responsibility to take in stranded migrants.

Speaking after a cabinet meeting on Thursday, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the Ocean Viking, whose passengers include 57 children, would be granted access to the military port of Toulon.

Darmanin said the right-wing Italian government's ban on the ‘charity’ vessel, which had been stuck off Sicily for days, was "reprehensible" and "selfish."

"In this context, France decided on an exceptional basis to make up for the Italian government's unacceptable behavior and to invite the ship to come to the military port of Toulon."

Darmanin said the decision to allow the ship to dock, after two weeks at sea, was "exceptional" and would not guide future action.

Apparently angered by Rome's refusal to accept the ship, Darmanin labeled Italy’s stance "incomprehensible."

The ship "is located without any doubt in Italy's search and rescue zone," the minister said. "It was Italy's job to immediately designate a port to welcome this ship."

Darmanin warned that "it is obvious that there will be extremely severe consequences for bilateral relations" with Italy.

He said France had already decided to freeze a plan to take 3,500 migrants currently in Italy, part of a European burden-sharing accord.

The French-Italian feud is the latest episode in a European standoff over where to disembark refugees picked up after trying to reach Europe from North Africa.

Italy rebuffs French criticism

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said on Thursday, "France's reaction to the request to take in 234 migrants, while Italy has taken in 90,000 this year alone, is totally incomprehensible in the face of constant calls for solidarity."

Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani has said Rome wants "an agreement to establish, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are relocated to various countries."

Italy, along with Spain, hosts most boats transporting migrants. Only 164 of the virtually 90,000 migrants who have reached Italy this year have so far been relocated to other EU states.

The question of how to handle migration in the largely border-free European Union has been a bone of contention for years. Rights groups have strongly denounced EU governments for increasingly restrictive migration policies and their mistreatment of refugees.

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