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NGO Rescue Vessel Diverts to France After Italy Refuses Port Entry

SOS Mediterranee photo of migrants housed in a tent on the back deck of the anchor handler Ocean Viking
SOS Mediterranee has warned of dangerously low morale among rescuees housed on deck in poor weather (SOS Mediterranee)

Published Nov 9, 2022 3:05 PM by The Maritime Executive

In a replay of circumstances last seen in 2018-19, an NGO-operated migrant rescue vessel has diverted to France after authorities in Italy refused to allow it to enter port. 

The former anchor handler Ocean Viking is loitering in the Tyrrhenian Sea, hoping to receive permission from the French government to disembark its 234 migrant rescuees at Corsica. It has had survivors aboard for 19 days, and its operators assert that some are in poor condition from the effects of an extended voyage.

Corsica is the vessel's second choice. Last week, Italy refused Ocean Viking's request for permission to enter port in Sicily, prompting operator SOS Mediterranee to appeal to other nations for a port of safety. Director of operations  Xavier Lauth warned Tuesday that the situation on board could end in "very severe consequences, including risks of loss of lives." 

Corsica's executive council has extended its support, but it awaits approval from Paris as the government of French President Emmanuel Macron negotiates with the newly-elected right-wing government of Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni. On Tuesday night, Meloni's administration thanked France for accepting the Ocean Viking; Macron's government has not admitted to allowing the vessel in and has protested Italy's reluctance to accept rescuees.

"There are extremely clear European rules which have also been accepted by the Italians, who are in fact the first beneficiaries of a European financial solidarity mechanism," French government spokesman Olivier Véran told FranceInfo on Wednesday. "This boat is intended to be welcomed in Italy. The current attitude of the Italian government . . . is unacceptable. We wish . . . that Italy plays its role and respects European commitments."

The Italian government's policy towards migrant rescue does not appear to be a full entry ban, as it was under former interior minister and current governing coalition member Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy's Five Star Party. 

On Monday, Prime Minister Meloni's administration allowed a small rescue vessel, the Rise Above, to offload 89 male and female survivors in Sicily without too much difficulty after a few days' wait at sea. 

Two other vessels, the Humanity 1 and Geo Barents, received a mixed treatment: after an extended wait, they were allowed to enter Catania on Monday and offload women, children and the injured. Adult males in good health were not initially allowed to disembark. 

Defying government instructions, both ships refused to leave Catania unless they were allowed to offload all personnel. On Tuesday, Italian officials relented and let all 248 remaining men aboard the Humanity 1 and Geo Barents to come down the gangway.