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Minors from controversial migrant ship Ocean Viking flee French refugee centre

Migrants leave the Ocean Viking in Toulon, France, on November 11, 2022, after being rescued by European maritime-humanitarian organization "SOS Mediterranee". (AFP Photo)

More than two dozen unaccompanied underage migrants aboard the controversial Ocean Viking refugee rescue ship have gone missing from their reception center, authorities said on Thursday.

The council in the southern Var department, according to reports, said the public prosecutor had been told that 26 of 44 minors under full legal age at the center had run away.

"Three of the 44 minors had already run away... after being taken into care", the department's president Jean-Louis Masson was quoted as saying by Le Figaro newspaper.

"On Thursday morning there were 23 more minors missing", he added.

Six days ago, after Italy refused to accept more than 200 migrants, France allowed the charity ship carrying the refugees to dock at the Mediterranean dock in the port of Toulon, in the Var region.

The action caused a dispute between the two countries, with the far-right parties in France accusing the government of being soft on immigrants.

The Var department said the children who left the place were mostly Eritreans who preferred to join their relatives and acquaintances in other European countries, including the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany.

It is said that these children were not in prison and were free and could go wherever they wanted.

The adults on board the ship are being handled by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), held at a social services facility, and are not being allowed to leave.

The prefecture said social services will continue to provide temporary shelter, medical care and schooling for other Ocean Viking minors in care.

Last week, the Var region prefect said the migrants will be sent to a detention center where they will be given medical care and their asylum applications will be processed.

Those who do not qualify for residency must be sent back to their home countries.

The French government last Thursday agreed to welcome the charity-run Ocean Viking rescue boat into one of its ports following Italy’s refusal to let it dock on its territory with more than 200 migrants on board.

Darmanin censured the right-wing Italian government's ban on the charity vessel, which had been stuck off Sicily for days, as "reprehensible" and "selfish.”

Italian authorities dismissed the criticism, saying the French reaction underscored Europe's failure to deal with a rising number of migrants, many of whom reach the continent via boats from North Africa.

The Ocean Viking, carrying 234 passengers, including around 60 children and 20 sick people, docked in the southern French city of Toulon last Friday.

About a third of the passengers will remain in France, while another third will go on to Germany.

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.

The embattled French president Emmanuel Macron’s government now faces an increasingly assertive far-right led by Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National that has been highly critical of the incumbent government's handling of migration.

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