Four-country migrant ship standoff escalates as Italy demands apology from France


Four-country migrant ship standoff escalates as Italy demands apology from France

Viktor Orban

Viktor Orban

The Spanish government said it is expecting ships carrying 630 migrants to arrive in the port of Valencia on Sunday morning instead of Saturday after bad weather forced the convoy to take a detour.

Italian media said the fates of the two ships was evidence of the policy shift by Italy's new populist government: refuse entry to rescue ships of European-flagged aid groups, but allow Italian maritime vessels in its ports.

French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the block on the Aquarius, insisting that Italy should have taken the migrants in.

With xenophobia on the rise across the continent and hard-right parties either in government or riding high in the polls from Italy in the south to Sweden on the north, immigration has become an issue of existential importance for the bloc.

Mr Di Maio, the head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, said in a radio interview: "We're waiting for an apology".

France sought to take a more conciliatory tone on Wednesday.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini said Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte - who is due to meet Macron in Paris on Friday - "would be right not to go to France" should such an apology not arrive.

SOS Mediterranee, the aid group that operates the Aquarius, said Thursday the Italian coast guard boat leading the convoy chose to skirt Sardinia's east coast after high waves caused exhausted migrants aboard to be seasick.

This June 12, 2018 photo released Wednesday, June 13, 2018 by French NGO "SOS Mediterranee" shows migrants on the Aquarius ship after being rescued in the Mediterranean Sea.

The country has seen more than 700,000 migrants arrive on its shores since 2013.

The French government was more conciliatory Wednesday, when the Foreign Ministry said France recognized the burden Italy has carried. Kurz said Europe needed an "axis of the willing in the fight against illegal migration".

Under the EU's asylum laws - now the subject of revision amid a major political dispute - migrants must apply for asylum in the country where they first enter Europe.

Matteo Salvini has repeatedly accused fellow European Union members of abandoning Italy as it struggles to cope with an influx of migrants.

The U.N. refugee agency's chief, Italian national Filippo Grandi, told Reuters it was "shameful" that two European countries refused to take in vulnerable migrants.

He demanded that France move from "words to action and offer a sign of generosity" by taking more in.

He has accused charities of working with human traffickers but said Italy would not stop rescuing migrant boats itself.

Italian maritime vessels, however, are still docking in its ports: on Wednesday, an Italian coast guard vessel docked in Catania, Sicily with 932 migrants aboard.