Italy backs down on three migrant ships, while fourth heads to Corsica

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A European humanitarian group has said its migrant rescue ship is heading towards the French island of Corsica in the hope that authorities will offer its 234 passengers a safe port, after Italy backed down and allowed migrants from three other rescue ships to disembark.

France has not yet publicly offered the Ocean Viking a safe port, but spokesman Francesco Creazzo of the SOS Mediterranee group said the Norwegian-flagged ship was hoping it would eventually do so, with the mayor of Marseille saying the port city would gladly take them in.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni had jumped the gun somewhat by issuing a statement on Tuesday evening thanking France for taking the Ocean Viking in, prompting a public critique of Italy’s apparent manoeuvring on French public radio on Wednesday.

Italy Migrants
Migrants disembark from the Norway-flagged Geo Barents rescue ship after having been allowed by Italian authorities, in Catania’s port, Sicily (AP)

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”.

Late on 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.

Italy Migrants
Migrants wait aboard of the Norway-flagged Geo Barents rescue ship for Italian authorities to decide whether they will be allowed to disembark (AP)

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.”

Migrants disembark
Migrants line up after disembarking from the Norway-flagged Geo Barents rescue ship (AP)

“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 honoured 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,” Mr Payan said. “Marseille, faithful to its history, is ready.”

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