Pope Francis homeless vatican
Pope Francis blesses a homeless person at the end of a general audience at the Vatican Reuters

Pope Francis waded in on the European controversy over how to address the raging migrant crisis, criticising "those who shut the door" on refugees, and received in turn a fuming reply from the leader of Italy's main anti-immigration party.

During his weekly general audience, the pontiff urged all faithful to respect the dignity of asylum-seekers and said he supported those who were trying to help them.

He then lashed out at xenophobes, asking worshippers to forgive them. "I invite all of you to ask forgiveness for those who close the door on these people who are looking for life, for a family, and to be cared for," he said.

Francis's words didn't go down well with Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy far-right Northern League party, who has repeatedly argued that migrant boats should not be allowed to disembark and be forcibly kept off Italian shores instead.

"We don't need anyone's forgiveness," he told his party radio. "How many refugees has the Vatican taken in?" he asked.

An ally to France's far-right National Front in Europe, like other nationalist and populist parties across the continent the Northern League has experienced a boom in recent months, currently polling at around 15% nationwide.

The quarrel came after Italy launched a diplomatic offensive to pressure its European allies to endorse a common refugee redistribution plan to alleviate pressure on its overflowing reception centres.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was expected to discuss the issue with his British counterpart David Cameron, who arrived for talks in Milan.

Meanwhile dozens of migrants returned to the seaside border crossing between Italy and France near the town of Ventimiglia a day after a makeshift camp there was cleared by police.

France has tightened border controls to prevent would-be-refugees from crossing.