230 refugees land in France as spat with Italy sparks EU diplomatic crisis

On Friday morning, 230 refugees rescued by Ocean Viking, a refugee rescue boat operated by the SOS Mediterranean organization, were allowed to disembark at Toulon, on France’s south coast. The boat was only allowed to dock due to the rapidly declining health of its passengers, including 55 children, who have been stranded at sea for over three weeks. It was the longest blockage since SOS Mediterranean began rescuing refugees in 2015.

The humanitarian ship the Ocean Viking makes its way into the military base in Toulon, France, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. The Norwegian-flagged vessel, operated by the NGO SOS Méditerranée, had been at sea for nearly three weeks carrying around 230 migrants. Italy had refused to allow the migrants to disembark on Italian territory. [AP Photo/Daniel Cole]

The vessel landed in France after the Italian government did not allow the ship to dock, in violation of international law. The Meloni government’s actions triggered a major diplomatic crisis between France and Italy, both members of EU and NATO, exploding the illusion of European Union (EU) unity in the face of the economic crisis and NATO-Russia war in Ukraine.

According to SOS Mediterranean, Ocean Viking rescued 234 people in six operations between October 22 and 26. The boat was illegally refused entry into multiple European ports, and by November 10 the health of the passengers was dire. That morning, 3 critically ill passengers were evacuated by helicopter to Bastia with one relative. In the early hours of November 11, the remaining 230 were evacuated to Toulon.

Currently, three other SOS Mediterranean rescue ships with around 270 refugees rescued are still being denied permission to dock in both Italy and France.

After the evacuation of Ocean Viking, SOS Mediterranean director of operations Xavier Lauth, stated that the situation was the result of “a dramatic failure from all the European states, which have violated maritime law in an unprecedented manner.”

During Ocean Viking’s three-week ordeal, 43 requests were sent to the Italian government to dock, all of which were rejected in violation of international law. Before Friday morning, the French government’s own refusal to allow the Ocean Viking to immediately dock was illegal according to maritime law. Paris continues to do this with the other rescue ships stranded in the Mediterranean.

A major diplomatic crisis erupted as Paris and Rome both violated their obligations under international law and tried to force the other to accept the refugees. The French government has suspended its participation in EU refugee agreements.

In retaliation for the Italian government’s actions, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin stated: “Italy is putting itself outside of European solidarity and its commitments (which will have) extremely severe consequences on the bilateral relationship.” The French government has withdrawn from an agreement to take in 3,500 migrants from Italy before Summer 2023 and has tightened controls on its Italian border.

Meloni called the French response “aggressive” and “unjustified,” while presenting the docking of the ship in France as a major victory to her government’s far-right base. On Saturday, the Meloni government doubled down on its stance, issuing a statement along with Greece, Malta, and Cyprus calling for a discussion to re-write the existing EU refugee agreements to limit the number of refugees they would accept.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and secretary of neo-fascist Northern Lega party, rejoiced that his government’s policy meant the “winds have changed.”

In France, far-right leader Marine Le Pen said: “Our country, through the voice of its leader, has given in. It is therefore the beginning, I think, of a series of NGO boats.”

In reality, the French government, like its EU allies, still refuses to admit hundreds of refugees currently stranded in rescue boats, while the EU’s Fortress Europe policy continues to claim dozens of lives every month.

Meloni’s actions are seen in Paris as a serious affront to Macron, who rushed to meet and congratulate the far-right premier the day after she took office, thus working to legitimize the political heirs of Benito Mussolini and ensure Rome’s continued support for war on Russia in Ukraine.

Similarly, her government has violated the EU refugee sharing agreement signed by Italy this summer, causing concern in Brussels over her previous assurances of her commitment to the EU and its support for the war in Ukraine.

The diplomatic recriminations arising from the Ocean Viking scandal has blown apart the appearance of cross-European unity amid the mounting economic crisis and the NATO war against Russia in Ukraine. In its editorial Saturday, the French daily Le Monde described the incident as “A European Disaster.” It warned that the issue of immigration and the response of far-right parties across the continent “threatens the future of the [European] Union itself.”

Franco-Italian antagonisms have surged in recent years, particularly due to the two countries’ support for opposing factions in the Libyan civil war unleashed by the 2011 war in Libya. In 2019, France recalled its ambassador to Italy after a series of political disputes. Three years later, the Meloni government’s unilateral break from EU agreements signals a further intensification of the inter-imperialist rivalries inside the EU.

As it allowed the ship to disembark, the Macron government tried to cynically present its response as evidence of its “humanitarian” concern, as opposed to the Meloni government’s total disregard for human life. Speaking on BFMTV on Sunday morning, government spokesperson Olivier Véran hypocritically claimed, “[our] response was humanitarian,” adding: “France would no longer be France if it did not act as it did.”

In fact, Macron only accepted the Ocean Viking to avoid popular outrage over the prospect of the illegal deaths of 234 rescued refugees a stone’s throw from the French coast. Macron has continued the EU’s Fortress Europe anti-immigrant policy, resulting in thousands of deaths during his presidency.

According to SOS Mediterranean, since it began operating in 2015, 20,182 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean, including 1,337 since the beginning of 2022.

Furthermore, under Macron, asylum seekers who can reach France are forced to endure appalling conditions. Thousands live in tent encampments on the edge of major cities without adequate access to hygiene facilities and food. In 2020, the French government was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights over the “inhuman and degrading living conditions” of asylum-seekers “living in the street without any resources.”

In this vein, the Macron government has employed a last-minute legal loophole to deny the refugees arriving on the Ocean Viking their full legal rights. In the hours before the boat docked, two strips of land in Toulon and nearby Hyères were arbitrarily declared “international waiting zones.”

Darmanin explained, “the survivors will therefore technically not be on French soil.” This legal chicanery means these refugees cannot seek asylum in France, so they can be deported without legal recourse. According to Darmanin, France has agreed to take just 80 of the passengers; the rest will be sent to 11 other EU states.

In response to the crisis of capitalism, the European ruling class deliberately promotes nationalism, militarism and anti-immigrant hatreds to maintain its grip on power. This increases the prominence of neo-fascism in European political life and creates open divisions in the EU.

These are set to deepen in the coming period, as global warming and wars in Ukraine and beyond drive worsening social and economic conditions internationally, increasing the number of refugees attempting the perilous journey to Europe.

The force that can be mobilized to defend refugees is the European working class. Amid the European energy crisis, war, and rapid inflation, reactionary EU governments are united in their inciting of ethnic hatreds against refugees. As long as its murderous Fortress Europe policies remain in place, thousands more men, women, and children fleeing war and poverty will continue drown in the Mediterranean each year.