More than half of the 44 minors that were on board the controversial Ocean Viking refugee rescue ship have fled the French social services who were taking care of them, authorities said on Thursday.
Six days ago France let the charity-run ship carrying more than 200 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean dock at the port of Toulon, in the southern Var region, after Italy refused to take them in.
The move sparked a dispute between the two countries and condemnation by far-right French parties, which blamed the government for being soft on immigration.
On Thursday, the Var prefecture said that 26 of the 44 minors on the ship had fled the Toulon hotel where they had been housed.
It said in a statement that the children who left were mainly Eritreans who preferred to join relatives in other European countries including the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Germany.
The children were not locked up and were free to go where they wanted. The adults who were aboard the ship, operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), are held in a social centre and are not allowed to leave.
The prefecture said that social services would continue to provide temporary shelter, medical care and schooling for the remaining Ocean Viking minors in its care.
Last week, the Var region prefect said the migrants would be sent to a holding site where they would be given medical care and their asylum requests processed. Those not deemed eligible to stay would be returned to their home countries.