French President Emmanuel Macron said Italy was acting “irresponsibly” and not meeting its obligations under international maritime law.
His party’s spokesman Gabriel Attal went further, telling Public Senat TV: “The Italian position makes me vomit.”
He added: “It’s totally unacceptable to play petty politics with human lives as is happening now.”
The Italian government has dismissed the criticism. “It is rich coming from them,” said deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio.
Hundreds of exhausted refugees, including 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women, who have been stranded on the Aquarius off the coast of Sicily, are now to be picked up by two Italian navy ships and taken through what are forecast to be stormy seas to Valencia in Spain, after the country’s new prime minister Pedro Sanchez unexpectedly agreed to let them dock.
The Aquarius is a rescue ship operated by NGOs SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without borders).
A spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières told The Independent: “Having the Aquarius sail to Spain means a longer period of time out of the search and rescue area off the coast of Libya, and hence a reduced rescue capacity at sea.
“It is estimated it will take three to four days to reach Valencia, and then the boat will have to be refuelled and restocked somewhere which takes about half a day.”
They estimated the boat won’t be back on search and rescue missions until “at least the middle of next week”, meaning it will be out of action for as long as 10 days.
Over 35,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, and almost 800 are estimated dead and missing. On average around 220 people a day are thought to leave North Africa on boats bound for European countries including Spain, Italy and Greece.
On Tuesday an American naval vessel went to the aid of an inflatable boat sinking off the coast of Libya, rescuing 41 people and collecting 12 bodies, according to Reuters.
The US navy ship called for assistance from German charity Sea Watch, which is currently operating the only charity rescue vessel off the Libyan coast, while the Aquarius is out of action.
A spokesman for Sea Watch said: “This shows what happens when there are not enough rescue assets at sea.”
“This shipwreck shows that we are needed,” they added, saying the American vessel called Sea Watch because “there’s just nobody else out here. We’re the only asset at the moment.”
The Aquarius was refused entry to Italian ports after Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini, who is also leader of far-right party Lega Nord (Northern League), said all Italian ports were closed to the ship. In a Facebook post, he called on Malta to take in the vessel.
He said: “Malta takes in nobody. France pushes people back at the border, Spain defends its frontier with weapons. From today, Italy will also start to say no to human trafficking, no to the business of illegal immigration.”
But the new Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, who took office just over a week ago, said Spain would allow the rescue vessel to dock in Valencia, where the rescued refugees could finally disembark.
At a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, Mr Macron’s spokesman Benjamin Grivaux said France welcomed Spain’s “humanitarian gesture”, and added that France doesn’t want to “set a precedent” that would allow some European countries to breach international laws and rely on other EU member states.
Aloys Vimard, head of the Médecins Sans Frontières rescue mission, told the Radio 4 Today Progamme earlier: “There were 629 people on board for more than three days. These people are sick, and for more than 36 hours we have been in international waters between Malta and Sicily. Now the situation is stable.
“We have received supplies from the Italian authorities – some bread and fruit. People are asking us where are we going? What will happen to us?”
A Médecins Sans Frontières spokesperson told The Independent the situation in the Mediterranean was the product of “a broken asylum system”.
In an email, they said: “Italy’s decision to close its ports to MSF appears to be aimed at triggering a reaction from European member states, and to put higher on the agenda of EU member states their failure to provide relocations for people who seek asylum in Italy as the entry point in the EU under the Dublin regulations.”
“Vulnerable people who have been exposed to abuse in Libya and are traumatised by their experience should not be used as political pawns for pressing EU member states to fix the Dublin system. Political considerations are being prioritised over the safety of hundreds of vulnerable people.”
They added: “The current stand-off in the Mediterranean Sea appears to be less about search and rescue at sea and more about the lack of European States’ responsibility sharing for asylum-seekers, and lack of intra-EU relocations – in other words, a broken asylum system.”
The Italian government’s stance was backed by Hungary’s right-wing nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, who is a friend of Mr Salvini and has promoted a fiercely anti-immigrant platform.
“It was so depressing to hear for years that it is impossible to protect maritime borders,” Mr Orban told reporters in Budapest. “Willpower has returned to Italy.”