Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said the Ocean Viking, whose passengers include 57 children, would be granted access to the military port of Toulon after a deepening standoff with Italy over whose responsibility it was to take them in.
Visibly angered by Rome’s refusal to accept the ship, Darmanin called its stance “incomprehensible”.
The ship “is located without any doubt in Italy’s search and rescue zone”, he said, adding that “it was Italy’s job to immediately designate a port to welcome this ship”.
The French-Italian tensions are the latest episode in a European standoff over where to disembark migrants picked up after trying to reach Europe from North Africa, with Rome increasingly frustrated at taking in the bulk of those rescued.
Speaking after a cabinet meeting, Darmanin also 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, and urged Germany and other EU nations to do the same.
Earlier Thursday, France said it was disembarking four of the 234 migrants aboard the Ocean Viking via helicopter for health reasons.
The charity that operates the ship, SOS Mediterranee, had made the request to French authorities after refusals by Italy to allow port access for the past week, even as sanitary conditions worsened onboard.
After Darmanin’s announcement, SOS Mediterranee said it felt “relief tainted with bitterness”.
A one-off decision
A spokeswoman for the charity told AFP earlier that “one of the patients is unstable and no longer reacting to treatment since October 27”.
“The two others were injured in Libya and because of this long wait for treatment, they risk having long-term health issues,” she said.
France had insisted that under international maritime law, Rome must grant access to the Ocean Viking and the 234 distressed migrants it rescued, not least after it granted access this week to three other rescue ships carrying hundreds of people.
Darmanin said the decision to allow the ship to dock, after two weeks at sea, was “exceptional” and would not guide future action.
But the arrival of Giorgia Meloni as the head of Italy’s most right-wing government in decades could also spark a repeat of the European migrant fights of four years ago, when French President Emmanuel Macron in particular clashed with Italy’s populist interior minister Matteo Salvini.
Italy’s Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said this week that he was sending a signal to EU nations that they must play an even bigger part.
Rome wants “an agreement to establish, on the basis of population, how migrants with a right to asylum are relocated to various countries,” Tajani said ahead of a meeting of EU ministers next week.
Volker Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has also urged a rapid disembarkment and warned that “politics should not be pursued at the expense of people in distress.”
Under international law, ships in distress or carrying rescued passengers must be allowed entry in the nearest port of call — which means Italy and often Malta are shouldering the burden of taking in those rescued after trying to cross the Mediterranean from Libya.
In June, around a dozen EU countries, including France, agreed to take in migrants who arrive in Italy and other main entry points.
So far this year, 164 asylum seekers have been moved from Italy to other nations in the bloc that have volunteered to accept them.
But that is a tiny fraction of the more than 88,000 that have reached its shores so far this year, of which just 14 percent arrived after being rescued by NGO vessels, according to the Italian authorities.
According to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, 1,891 migrants have died or disappeared while trying to cross the Mediterranean so far this year.