More than two dozen unaccompanied underage migrants rescued by the humanitarian ship Ocean Viking and taken in by France have gone missing from their reception centre, local authorities have said.
The council in the southern Var department said the public prosecutor had been told that 26 of 44 young people under full legal age at the centre had run away.
“Three of the 44 minors had already run away… after being taken into care”, the department’s president Jean-Louis Masson told Le Figaro newspaper. On Thursday morning there were 23 more minors missing”, he added.
“This was foreseeable for us,” Christophe Paquette, deputy director general in charge of solidarity at the Var departmental council, told AFP.
He explained that most of the 26 minors were Eritreans who “never stay” because “they have specific objectives in northern European countries” such as the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland or Germany, where they want to join their families or relatives.
The young migrants had not been held in a closed waiting zone, unlike the 190 adults who also docked in the southern French port of Toulon a week ago after two weeks stranded in the Mediterranean aboard the Ocean Viking, the rescue ship chartered by the European humanitarian organisation SOS Méditerranée.
“Our mission is to protect them and not to detain them,” Christophe Paquette added, stressing that the department had “reported their departure” after “trying to dissuade them”.
The minors who ran away “behaved in an exemplary manner, they left thanking us”, he insisted.
“The phenomenon of unaccompanied minors running away is frequent, for many reasons, family ties in another European country for instance,” Toulon public prosecutor Samuel Finielz told reporters.
“Providing shelter is a phase of child protection which cannot be considered as confinement,” he added.
Last month, the Ocean Viking charity rescue ship saved 234 migrants, including 57 children, as they tried to reach Catania in Sicily after crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.
But Italy refused to allow the ship to dock for three weeks, forcing the vessel to sail to France.
The French government called Italy “irresponsible” and “inhumane” for not aiding the ship, accusing the right-wing Italian government of a “breach of trust”.
Paris responded by saying it would refuse to take 3,500 asylum seekers from Italy it was due to accept under a European migrant-sharing “solidarity” plan.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni — who was elected promising to stop the flow of migrants between Africa and Italy — responded by describing Paris’s reaction as “incomprehensible and unjustified”.
The row appeared to cool down only on Monday after talks between Italian and French presidents Sergio Mattarella and Emmanuel Macron.
Italy has seen a sharp increase in migrant landings this year. But over the past two years, it has admitted fewer refugees as a percentage of its population and has processed fewer asylum requests.
EU interior ministers will meet on 25 November in Brussels to discuss migration policy after the France-Italy crisis, the Czech Presidency of the EU Council said on Thursday.