Italy’s decision to turn away a rescue boat carrying 629 African migrants was criticised by French President Emmanuel Macron.

During a cabinet meeting on June 12, Macron accused Italy’s leaders of “cynicism and irresponsibility” and said they had broken international maritime law by refusing the boat the right to dock.

“In cases of distress, those with the closest coastline have a responsibility to respond,” spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said in unusually harsh criticism by Paris of its southern neighbour.

As reported by the Agence France-Presse (AFP), Italy has pleaded for years with its EU partners for help with a massive influx of arrivals from Africa that has seen 700,000 people cross the Mediterranean and land in the country since 2013.

Under existing rules, countries where migrants first arrive are required to process their asylum requests, placing the burden on Italy in particular, as well as fellow southern countries Greece and Spain.

The new government in Rome, which includes the far-right League party, came to power pledging to stop the arrivals and carry out mass deportations that could see hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants expelled.

Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, the League leader, said last week that he would not allow Italy to become “Europe’s refugee camp”.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel faced serious pressure on June 12 from conservative allies in her coalition to take a firmer line on immigration which would also see migrants turned back at the border.

According to AFP, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, from Merkel’s Bavarian allies CSU, cancelled plans to present his “master plan” which was expected to propose toughening controls.

Merkel has resisted this because it would shift the problem to Germany’s neighbours (Austria in particular) and she has pleaded for burden-sharing and a new EU force to police the bloc’s external borders.

“I’ll tell you bluntly: if we cannot come up with a response to the migration challenges the very foundations of the EU will be at stake,” Merkel warned last week.

The issue will be discussed at the upcoming summit in Brussels on June 28-29.