Lake Garda
Lake Garda in Italy. Image/Daniele Pesciallo, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

France criticised Italy's refusal to let a charity ship carrying over 200 migrants dock in its ports, with a government spokesman on Wednesday calling the attitude of the new rightist government in Rome "unacceptable".

The Ocean Viking vessel has been at sea for more than two weeks since its first rescue in the central Mediterranean and is now heading to France hoping to find a place to disembark its 234 migrants there.

Italy's new rightist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's administration is cracking down on charity vessels, urging them to take rescued people elsewhere and saying Italy cannot alone receive arrivals from North Africa.

Late on Tuesday, Italy expressed its "appreciation" for "France's decision" to share responsibility for the migrants.

However, a spokesperson for the French government said diplomatic talks were still underway with Rome to try to resolve the fate of the ship and said Italy had to help those in distress at sea.

"The Italian attitude is ... unacceptable. Italy must play its role," Olivier Veran told franceinfo radio. The Italian government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A source at SOS Mediterranee, the charity group operating the Ocean Viking, said they were planning to reach the French island of Corsica on Thursday morning and they were ready to head to Marseilles if they were not allowed to disembark there.

However, it was not yet clear whether the ship would eventually dock in France.

"It could still happen in Italy since the ship will pass Sardinia on its way to France," SOS Mediterranee chief Sophie Beau told BFM TV on Wednesday. "If it is not Italy it must absolutely be France there is absolutely no choice, these people must disembark as soon as possible."

A total of four charity ships carrying around 1,000 migrants had been stuck off Italy in recent days, with the government urging flag states Germany and Norway to take charge of them.

Two of the boats disembarked on Tuesday in the city of Catania, in Sicily, after the government initially allowed ashore only those it said were vulnerable. A third smaller vessel was allowed to dock in the southern port of Reggio Calabria.

Italy has seen a sharp increase in migrant landings this year, with almost 88,700 people arriving so far in 2022, compared with 56,500 in the same period last year. Around 15% were picked up by charity vessels.