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France-Italy row could further disrupt the EU's already erratic handling of migrants

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

A fallout between France and Italy over a boat carrying migrants rescued in the Mediterranean is poisoning diplomatic relations between the European neighbors. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports this could further disrupt the EU's already erratic handling of migrants.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: While France and Italy bickered, a humanitarian boat carrying 234 migrants, including 57 children, hovered for nearly two weeks in international waters. French humanitarian group SOS Mediterranee, which operates the Ocean Viking, called the incident a dramatic failure. International maritime law states that people rescued at sea must be brought to the nearest and safest harbor, says immigration specialist Matthieu Tardis.

MATTHIEU TARDIS: So this is why it's always Italy when it comes to people departing from Africa and from Libya.

BEARDSLEY: Tardis says Italy's new right-wing prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, is trying to demonstrate her anti-immigration bona fides. Maloney forced French President Emmanuel Macron's hand by thanking him for taking in the ship, in effect obliging him to do so. Now Macron is under attack by his own far-right opponents, like Marine Le Pen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARINE LE PEN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Because of our president, our country ceded," she said. "It's just the beginning. Now these NGO boats, who are complicit with the human traffickers, are going to want to come to French ports."

The EU does have a way to help countries on the front lines of migration - 21 EU nations are part of a solidarity mechanism and have committed to taking a quota of the thousands of migrants who arrive every year by sea. The Italian government says the system is not working. And not letting the boat dock sends a signal that the EU must play a bigger role.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GERALD DARMANIN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin slammed Italy and said his country is putting on hold its pledge to relocate migrants. Incomprehensible, responded the Italian government. Judith Sunderland is Europe director for Human Rights Watch.

JUDITH SUNDERLAND: Equitable sharing of responsibility for asylum seekers across the European Union. This is a incredibly divisive issue.

BEARDSLEY: ...That EU states have not been able to agree on. At a time when the conditions forcing people to flee their countries - war, climate change and famine - are getting worse, Sunderland says the lack of a predictable system inevitably leads to chaos. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

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