Italy regrets migrant ship spat with France, interior minister says

Italy said on Wednesday it regretted tensions with Paris over migrants, which soared last week after a charity ship it turned away docked in southern France to disembark around 230 people rescued at sea.

Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi said the Ocean Viking vessel, which has a Norwegian flag and is run by non-governmental organization (NGO) SOS Mediterranee, "autonomously" decided to head towards the French coast, after spending days off the island of Sicily.

"Italy never aimed for such a decision, which created international tensions ... and could produce repercussions on migration policies at the European level," Piantedosi told the upper house Senate.

France accused the new rightist government in Rome of breaking a bond of trust and breaching international laws on safeguards for migrants, and said it would not take in 3,000 migrants it had previously pledged to accept from Italy.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni called Paris's reaction "incomprehensible and unjustified", and the row appeared to cool down only on Monday after talks between Italian and French presidents Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron.

SOS Mediterranee reacted to Piantedosi on Twitter, saying that Italy left it with "no other choice but to ask France for a safe port", even though that meant more time at sea after spending more than two weeks off the Italian coastline.

"Having had to sail for around two days before reaching a port of disembarkation is a terrible blow dealt by EU member states and associated states to maritime and humanitarian laws," the Franco-German-Swiss-Italian NGO said.

Piantedosi, a career civil servant, insisted that under international law Italy had no duty to take charge of migrants rescued by "private vessels" and said charity ships flying the flag of other states should turn to them for assistance.

"Italy has always emphasised the need for migrant arrivals not to weigh only on the countries at the external border of Europe," Piantedosi said, also criticising insufficient relocations under an EU burden-sharing scheme.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in migrant landings this year, with almost 93,000 people arriving so far in 2022, compared with 59,300 in the same period last year. Around 15% were picked up by charity vessels.

However, Rome last year admitted fewer refugees as a percentage of its population compared with EU peers such as France, Germany and Spain, think-tank ISPI data show, and in the last two years processed fewer asylum requests.

Piantedosi said Italy was considering offering migration channels to countries that accept repatriations and help prevent sea departures.

"The aim would be tackling migrant smuggling and at the same time strengthening legal entry channels," he said.