Migrants from the “Ocean Viking” have gone underground in France

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Mediterranean Sea

France is looking for the missing migrants from the sea rescue ship “Ocean Viking”

The ship of an aid organization docked in the southern French port of Toulon two weeks ago. But where are the migrants? France’s interior minister Gérald Darmanin has trouble explaining himself.

The “Ocean Viking” in the military port of Toulon.

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The rescue ship of the aid organization SOS Méditerranée made headlines in mid-November because the new Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni did not want to take the 234 rescued. Others jumped in: France, Germany and other EU countries each wanted to take in a third of the permitted passengers. “About 40” passengers would be returned to their country – reportedly to Bangladesh – said Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

Two weeks later, the balance is different: two Malians have been taken back to their country by plane; four other migrants await their fate in Toulon. That makes six out of 234. Many of the rest have disappeared; others were released because, embarrassingly, Darmanin’s customs officials were not numerous enough to clear asylum seekers. After the legal deadlines, they released the migrants from the improvised transit zone, a holiday village on the Giens peninsula.

«dissolved in air»

In Paris, the conservative newspaper Le Figaro denounced a “government fiasco”. Right-wing populist Marine Le Pen sees the “Ocean Viking Affair” as obvious proof that Darmanin and President Emmanuel Macron have lost control over immigration.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

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For their part, the conservative Republicans accuse the center government of saying that the minors rescued by the “Ocean Viking” had “disappeared in thin air” the day after their arrival in Toulon. Darmanin replied rather helplessly that they “didn’t completely break up.” He probably wanted to imply that the police were monitoring their comings and goings.

The agile minister was unable to soothe public opinion. She’s been upset since the horrific murder of a Parisian girl named Lola in October. The perpetrator, a 24-year-old Algerian, should have been deported a long time ago.

Between the lines

The left-liberal newspaper “Le Monde” asked Darmanin how many of the 122,000 evictions pronounced in 2021 had actually been implemented. The interior minister had to admit that only 17,000 rejected migrants actually left the country. In the middle of this week, the waves rose again when it became known that a young Jordanian, who was also the subject of an expulsion decision, had raped a woman in a Paris emergency room.

Paradoxically, Darmanin owes the fact that he is not coming under more political pressure to the fact that he is also being criticized by the left – albeit there as Macron’s man for the rough stuff. The party “Indomitable France” calls the country’s top police chief a “Sarkozy hybrid” and accuses him of thinking like Le Pen when he systematically puts immigrants in the vicinity of delinquents. The 40-year-old minister, whose middle name is “Moussa”, describes this as absurd, since he himself is the son of immigrants and has an Algerian grandmother.

Darmanin with British Home Secretary Braverman.

Darmanin with British Home Secretary Braverman.

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On the other hand, there is a growing impression that Darmanin – who is said to have presidential ambitions after Macron’s term ends – is changing his positions depending on the mood in the country. Under the impression of the “Lola and the Ocean Viking” affairs, he hastened to tighten immigration laws in France once more. Among other things, the possibility of contesting expulsion decisions is to be drastically reduced. Many non-governmental organizations sharply criticize it; the right-wing objected that tightening the law would be of no use as long as the rejected migrants were not deported.

Darmanin pays less heed to opinions outside his country. In Italy he has taken on and fallen out with the Meloni government. He also used the “Ocean Viking” affair as a pretext to cancel a bilateral agreement according to which France should have taken in 3,500 migrants from Lampedusa from Italy. In the National Assembly he defended himself as follows:

In Great Britain, Darmanin is no better written than in Italy. The Conservatives accuse the French police of not stopping migrants from crossing the English Channel enough. In mid-November, Darmanin reached an agreement with his new British counterpart, Suella Braverman, to step up night-time police patrols around Calais in order to put a stop to the gangs of people smugglers. London is co-financing the increase with a total of 72.2 million euros.

Darmanin didn’t dwell on the deal. He met with journalists and explained to them again that he would not let himself be influenced by Le Pen’s theses, but was fighting them with his resolute action.

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