A ship carrying 237 passengers, including women and children, was stranded in the Central Mediterranean since late October as France and Italy refused to allow the docking of the migrant vessel.

A migrant rests on deck of NGO rescue ship 'Ocean Viking', in the Mediterranean Sea, November 9, 2022.
A migrant rests on deck of NGO rescue ship 'Ocean Viking', in the Mediterranean Sea, November 9, 2022. (Camille Martin Juan/Sos Mediterranee/Handout / Reuters)

The arrival of hundreds of refugees on the Italian island of Lampedusa off the coast of Tunisia has sparked a political and humanitarian crisis.

The Ocean Viking, a ship carrying refugees sailing from Sicilian waters towards France, is at the centre of the dispute. It has been trying to dock in Italy since late October but the Italian authorities refused to let it dock on its shores.

Italy's new right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni passed the ball into the French court by announcing that Paris had opened a port to the Ocean Viking on Tuesday. The comment however triggered a diplomatic spat since France had made no such decision in public. 

On Wednesday, France criticised Italy for turning its back on the migrant ship, carrying 234 passengers, including 57 children.

A spokesman for the French government, Olivier Veran, called Italy's rejection to let the ship dock "unacceptable" on Wednesday.

"The ship is currently in Italian territorial waters, there are extremely clear European rules that were accepted by the Italians," he said.

Following heated discussions with Italy over which nation should permit the boat to dock, France said on Thursday it will permit the ship to dock at the port of Toulon. But the weeks of dithering exposed both sides as neither of the two came out looking good.

"There is no doubt that it (the Ocean Viking) was in Italy's research and rescue zone," said Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said, adding that there will be strong "consequences on the bilateral relationship".

France said it will only host about one-third of the 234 passengers on board the Ocean Viking. 

France also backtracked from its previous pledge of taking in over 3,000 incoming migrants. It will instead enforce strict controls at its borders with Italy. 

France, according to Italy and Spain, which receive the majority of the migrants arriving by boat in the Mediterranean, ought to provide greater assistance.

READ MORE: France, Italy in row as refugees come ashore at Sicily port

Italy had urged flag states Germany and Norway to take control of four charity ships carrying about 1,000 migrants who were stalled off the coast of Italy for the past few weeks.

Apart from the Ocean Viking, Tuesday saw the disembarkation of two additional vessels at the Sicilian city of Catania after the authorities only let those it deemed to be vulnerable to do so. 

A fourth smaller ship was authorised to dock in the southern port of Reggio Calabria. 

Italy has imposed a ban on entering territorial waters to all NGO-operated search and rescue ships and has not assigned a Place of Safety despite numerous official requests, according to a statement released by the SOS MEDITERRANEE on Tuesday.

Requests for assistance were made by the NGO in finding a Place of Safety in France, Spain and Greece as well but no reply was given.

“We are asking – once again – governments to work jointly as EU member states and associated states, together with the European Commission, to establish a predictable mechanism for disembarkation of survivors in Places of Safety, where their safety is no longer threatened and their basic human needs can be met,” Xavier Lauth SOS MEDITERRANEE Director of Operations said. 

Experts on human rights, international law, and nongovernmental organisations agree that ships have a duty to save those in need, and coastal states have a duty to provide a secure place to disembark. 

However, according to Italy, the flag countries of the ships are responsible for taking in the migrants.

Humanitarian groups, maritime legal experts, and human rights activists all reject Italy's stance.

Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea requires every shipmaster to assist anyone found at sea in danger of being lost. 

NGOs claim Malta and Italy consistently delay, ignore, or reject their pleas for a safe haven in the Mediterranean Sea.

Source: TRT World