ROME (Reuters) – Italy prepared to send hundreds of migrants to Spain in a small naval convoy on Tuesday after shutting its own ports to them, as France accused the new Italian government of cynicism and irresponsibility.
The French rebuke highlights the tensions within the European Union over how to tackle a years-old migration crisis, with Italy’s anti-establishment coalition promising to tear up much-discredited asylum rules.
Some 629 migrants, including 11 children and seven pregnant women, have been afloat in the central Mediterranean aboard the Aquarius rescue ship since Sunday, when both Italy and Malta refused to let them dock.
Spain unexpectedly offered on Monday to take in the group of mainly sub-Saharan Africans, who were picked up off the Libyan coast over the weekend. But the Aquarius is heavily overcrowded, making the four-day trip to Spain particularly perilous.
To overcome the problem, two Italian boats moved alongside to the Aquarius on Tuesday to share out the migrants before heading west through what are predicted to be stormy seas.
Italy has taken in more than 640,000 mainly African migrants over the past five years. Other EU states have largely ignored pleas by Rome to persuade them to take some of the newcomers and share the cost of their care, heightening anti-European and anti-migrant sentiment in the Italy.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s new interior minister and head of the far-right League, has said his move this week is aimed at forcing other European states to help pick up the strain.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron denounced the block on the Aquarius, saying under international law Italy should have taken the migrants in.
“There is a degree of cynicism and irresponsibility in the Italian government’s behaviour with regards to this dramatic humanitarian situation,” government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux quoted Macron as telling his cabinet.
Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for Macron’s party, went further, telling Public Senat TV: “The Italian position makes me vomit.”
Italy dismissed the French criticism. “It is rich coming from them,” said Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio.
Rome also received backing from Hungary’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, who is a friend of Salvini and has promoted a fiercely anti-immigrant platform.
“It was so depressing to hear for years that it is impossible to protect maritime borders,” Orban told reporters in Budapest. “Will power has returned to Italy.”
Even as Italy worked to dispatch the charity ship, an Italian coast guard vessel with 937 migrants aboard was heading north from the Libyan coast and was expected to dock in Sicily on Wednesday.
“No one should dare brand Italy or its government as inhumane or xenophobic,” Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli told Radio Capital.
However, charities questioned why the coast guard boat was being allowed to dock in Italy, while migrants on the Aquarius, who had been at sea for much longer, were not.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which is operating the Aquarius alongside SOS Mediterranne, urged rethinking the lengthy trip to Spain.
“This plan would mean already exhausted rescued people would endure 4 more days travel at sea,” it said on Twitter. “MSF calls for people’s safety to come before politics.”
Salvini’s League scored its best-ever result in March national elections, partly on pledges to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and halt the flow of newcomers, and has formed a coalition with the anti-system 5-Star Movement.
“Responsibility needs to be shared out and I am happy that after years of silence the government has raised its head,” Salvini wrote on Facebook on Tuesday, adding that he planned to go to Libya later this month to discuss the migrant departures.
Additional reporting by John Irish and Marine Pennetier in Paris and Steve Scherer in Rome, editing by Larry King