Italy and France try to patch up migrant row, draw papal rebuke

Matteo Salvini emmanuel Macron

GETTYMatteo Salvini's decision to block a migrant ship docking in Italy has been criticised by France

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday that Italy was "cynical and irresponsible" over the migrant vessel which had been left stranded in the Mediterranean after Italy and Malta refused to grant it permission to dock.

Some 629 migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have been in the central Mediterranean since Sunday aboard the Aquarius, a vessel operated by SOS Méditerranée, a Franco-German charity that tries to rescue people making the risky crossing to Europe.

Spain finally ended the deadlock Monday by saying the ship could land at its port of Valencia, with its arrival expected later this week.

Speaking to reporters alongside French President Emmanuel Macron at Elysee Palace in Paris, he said the proposal would be presented during Austrian presidency of the European Council next month.

In addition to migrant children and families, Francis also said particular concern must be shown to those who are victims of human trafficking rings, and those displaced due to conflicts, natural disasters and persecution.

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Oxfam said France should immediately stop and adequately sanction the "illegal practices of the French police at the French-Italian border", ensure the right to seek asylum for all foreign children in French territory and take care of them according to the provisions of national, European and other global laws.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hit back, calling Macron's stance on migrants "hypocritical".

France said it has received no formal request from Italy for an apology, and that it believed the planned meeting between Macron and Conte would go ahead. Late Wednesday Italian media citing sources said Conte was leaning toward postponing the meeting, rather than cancelling it.

"France previous year received a record number of asylum seekers", she said, referring to the 100,000 asylum requests received by the country. "The recognition of this fact is vitally important if we wish to give a concrete and dignified response to this humanitarian challenge", he said.

Austria's conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who since December has led a coalition government with the anti-migration Freedom Party, proposed the idea Wednesday of an "axis of the willing" - made up of Rome, Vienna and Berlin - to cooperate in tackling illegal immigration.

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"I fear a major tragedy if states start refusing to accept rescued migrants", director general William Lacy Swing said.

More than 1.8 million migrants have entered Europe since 2014, and Italy is now sheltering more than 170,000 asylum seekers, as well as an estimated 500,000 unregistered migrants.

The Italian foreign ministry said that Italy's Enzo Moavero Milanesi and Malta's Carmelo Abela, met Friday in Rome and expressed "the shared desire to work together in tight coordination, especially in European capitals, about migration in terms of revising" EU asylum regulations.

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

Salvini has repeatedly accused fellow European Union members of abandoning Italy as it struggles to cope with migrants making the perilous journey from Africa across the Mediterranean. "We were given a document (refus d'entree, refusal of entry) in the van and we were put on another train going back to Italy, without any explanation".

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