ROME – Lines formed Sunday at Italy’s northern border crossings with France following Paris’ decision to reinforce border controls over a diplomatic row with Italy about migration policy and humanitarian rescue ships that shows no end in sight.
The Ventimiglia-Menton crossing along the picturesque Mediterranean coast has often been a flashpoint of the migrant debate, with makeshift camps giving shelter to migrants who try to cross into France after arriving in Italy. On Sunday morning, several dozen migrants were sleeping on mattresses under a highway overpass — numbers that could swell as France cracks down on crossings.
France announced this week it was sending 500 extra officers to beef up its frontiers with Italy in retaliation for Italy’s delays in helping humanitarian ships that rescue migrants in the Mediterranean.
Police patrolled trains and roads across the border Sunday, stopping migrants. Along the winding coastal road that connects the two neighbors, traffic flowed freely from France to Italy but barely crawled in the other direction. An Associated Press reporter saw French border police stopping nearly every car, making drivers open their trunks and boarding large vehicles like camper vans.
Behind them stood a border sign with the word “ITALY” on a blue background and surrounded by the gold stars of the EU flag, symbol of a bloc whose principles of cross-border cooperation are being put to the test by the current France-Italy tensions.
After a weekslong-standoff, Italy allowed three aid groups to disembark their passengers in Italian ports because doctors determined they were all vulnerable, but refused entry to a fourth. The Ocean Viking charity rescue ship, which had been at sea for nearly three weeks, eventually docked in Toulon, France after Paris reluctantly took it in.
Italy’s new far-right-led government headed by Premier Giorgia Meloni has vowed that Italy will no longer be the primary port of entry for migrants leaving on smugglers’ boats from Libya and is demanding Europe do more to shoulder the burden and regulate the aid groups that operate rescue ships in the Mediterranean.
France strongly criticized Italy’s handling of the Ocean Viking, which was accompanied by triumphant social media posts by right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini that “the air has changed” before France had publicly agreed to take it in.
In retaliation, France announced it was withdrawing from a European Union “solidarity” mechanism approved in June to relocate 3,000 migrants from Italy.
Italy called France’s response “disproportionate” and “aggressive” and won the support of other front-line Mediterranean countries, including Greece, Malta and Cyprus. The four countries penned a joint statement Saturday calling for a new, obligatory solidarity mechanism to take in migrants.
In addition, the four countries called on the European Commission to initiate talks on better regulating private rescue ships.
“Fines, seizures and more controls in sight,” Salvini tweeted Sunday about threatened new measures against charity rescue ships. “The government is ready to get tough.”
On Sunday, Germany’s ambassador to Italy, Viktor Elbling, defended the aid groups, saying they help save lives and that “their humanitarian commitment warrants our recognition and our support.”
“In 2022, 1,300 people have already died or gone missing in the Mediterranean. NGOs have saved 12% of the survivors,” he tweeted.
The German groups Mission Lifeline and SOS Humanity were able to disembark all their passengers in Italy last week, and the budget committee of the Bundestag decided to provide another group, United4Rescue, with 2 million euros for civil sea rescue in 2023, with similar funding through 2026.
Italy has justified its hard line by noting that it has already welcomed nearly 90,000 migrants this year, far more than any other European country. However, only a fraction of them stay in Italy and apply for asylum, with most continuing their journeys north in hopes of reaching relatives and better established migrant communities in France, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere.
France far outranks Italy in terms of processing asylum applications. Data from January to August shows that Germany received the most applications this year, topping 100,000, followed by France with 82,535. Italy trailed Spain and Austria in fifth place with 43,750 applications.
French government spokesman Olivier Veran reaffirmed Sunday that France would no longer welcome the “just over 3,000 people from Italy, including 500 by the end of the year” as part of the European solidarity mechanism. He called Italy the “loser” in the scenario.
“We will not maintain the proposal that was planned,” Veran said on BFM TV.
Daniel Cole contributed from Menton and Thomas Adamson contributed from Paris.
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