France U-turns on migrant deal with Italy

The interior minister called Rome’s refusal to accept a boat with 234 people “selfish,” and scrapped an earlier refugee accord

France has canceled plans to take 3,500 immigrants turned away by Italy, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said on Thursday. However, Paris will allow more than 200 migrants stuck on a boat in Italian waters to dock in the country.

Darmanin told reporters that France will allow the Ocean Viking, a ship that collects mostly African migrants at sea and ferries them to Europe, to dock in Toulon. The ship, along with similar NGO-operated vessels, has been stuck off the coast of Italy for several weeks after the Italian government refused it permission to dock.

Calling Italy’s refusal “selfish,” Darmanin said that France had decided “to make up for the Italian government’s unacceptable behavior and to invite the ship to come to the military port of Toulon.”

Of the 234 people on board, the minister said that France would house a third, with another third going to Germany and the rest shared among other EU countries.

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However, Darmanin said that France would renege on a pre-existing deal to take in roughly 3,500 migrants currently housed in Italy, and would tighten controls along its Italian border. 

Successive Italian governments have argued that their country bears an unfair burden when it comes to taking in migrants, and have called on other EU members to share the load. Recently-elected Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has also promised to crack down on illegal immigration, which soared across the EU to levels unseen since 2016 during the first nine months of this year, according to data from the bloc’s border agency, Frontex.

Her efforts to turn migrant ships away from Italian ports have been met with resistance from the charities in charge of the vessels, with one, SOS Humanity, accusing Rome of violating European Law and the Geneva Refugee Convention and threatening legal action.

In France, Darmanin has also vowed to take a tougher stance on immigration. Speaking to Le Monde last week, he said that a new bill would expedite the deportation of criminal foreigners while making it easier for legal immigrants to obtain work permits for sectors experiencing a shortage of labor. 

The bill has been opposed from different sides of the political spectrum, with right wing leader Marine Le Pen accusing Darmanin of attempting to flood the country with foreign workers, and the left wing NUPES alliance criticizing him for exploiting these same workers.

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