The fate of hundreds of people rescued in the central Mediterranean by a charity vessel has sparked a diplomatic row between Italy and France, with the French government calling it “unacceptable” that Rome has refused to allow the ship, carrying 234 asylum seekers, to dock in an Italian port.

On Tuesday, the Ocean Viking rescue boat, operated by European charity SOS Méditerranée under the Norwegian flag, began sailing toward France after Italy’s new far-right government refused to grant it a safe port for more than two weeks.

The French government spokesperson, Olivier Véran, said on Wednesday: “The boat is currently in Italian territorial waters. There are extremely clear European rules which have been accepted by the Italians who are, in fact, the first beneficiary of a European financial solidarity mechanism.”

Véran added that the Italian government’s declarations were “unacceptable”, as was its refusal to allow the boat to dock. “We still have a few hours of discussions and, in any case, we are still at that stage. Obviously no one will let this boat run any risk, especially for the people on board,” he added. “We are following the situation minute by minute.”

Over the weekend, in its first test of immigration policy, Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, a leader of a neo-fascist party who once said Rome should “send the migrants home and sink the boats that saved them,” is a controversial anti-fascist plan. for immigration, which provides for the repulsion of most adult male asylum seekers rescued in the central Mediterranean and who are not considered by the Italian authorities to be eligible for international protection.

Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, on Saturday initially allowed Humanity 1, a rescue boat run by the German NGO SOS Humanity, to enter the port of Catania in Sicily with 179 passengers onboard. However, Italian authorities began disembarking only children and sick people: 144 passengers were moved to a reception centre while the rest, all males over the age of 18, were left onboard with Rome threatening to push them back into international waters.

On Sunday there was another rescue boat, the Geo Barents, run by Médecins Sans Frontières and carrying 568 asylum seekers. Again, after a quick inspection on board, 217 people were left on the ship, with volunteers reporting people sleeping on the decks, as fever-inducing infections and scabies spread.

After a two-day standoff, all remaining asylum seekers aboard the two charity vessels were allowed to disembark due to their physical and psychological condition.

Unsuccessfully waiting for permission to dock in Italy since late October, Ocean Viking appealed to France, requesting authorization to disembark its passengers.

People aboard the NGO vessels are migrants, not shipwrecked. We did not ask for the disembarkation of all the people aboard the vessels. That was the doctors’ decision after a second inspection on board, and we found that decision bizarre.

The director general of SOS Méditerranée, Sophie Beau, said: “The situation aboard the Ocean Viking has reached a critical stage. We are now confronted with very serious consequences including the risk of loss of human life after more than two weeks of being blocked at sea.”

The Ocean Viking is now sailing toward France and should reach international waters off the French Mediterranean island of Corsica by Thursday.

Piers Potter. CNTLIVE London.

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