ROME — Italy’s lawmakers on Tuesday began work on a contested immigration crackdown, part of the right-wing government’s plan to discourage thousands of migrants who risk voyages in smugglers’ unseaworthy boats to reach Europe.
The Italian Senate’s scheduled evening debate on the proposed legislation comes on the heels of President Sergio Mattarella appealing to the entire European Union to overhaul what he described as the 27-nation bloc’s “prehistoric” immigration and asylum rules.
Far-right Premier Giorgia Meloni and her coalition government allies want to eliminate or vastly limit the “special protection” status that Italian authorities have granted to thousands of asylum-seekers who are unlikely to have their applications approved. Holders of that status can stay in Italy for two years and legally work during that time.
Ahead of the Senate debate, the left-wing opposition in Parliament readied hundreds of amendments to slow down passage of the proposed legislation, leaving it unclear when a final vote in the upper chamber would come and the bill would move to the lower Chamber of Deputies.
In another sign of opposition to the crackdown, the governors of Italy’s four left-led regions announced they would not cooperate with an Interior Ministry official whom Meloni’s government appointed as a special commissioner to manage migrant arrivals, including by erecting more repatriation centers.
Successive Italian governments have pressed their EU partners for years, largely in vain, to take in many of the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers who reached Italy’s Mediterranean shores. Most risked the dangerous, expensive sea voyage in hopes of finding family or work in northern Europe, but EU rules required them to apply for asylum in the country where they landed.
During a state visit to Poland this week, in Poland, Mattarella championed solidarity. “No state, alone, can deal with such an epochal problem,” Italy’s head of state said during a speech. ”But the European Union can do it with coordinated and well-organized action.”
“And this is a theme that calls upon the Union’s responsibility, and calls for a new policy of immigration and asylum within the Union, overcoming old rules that by now are prehistoric,” Mattarella said in his blunt appeal.
Meloni unveiled the first stage of her government’s approach to stemming unauthorized migration last month, when she led a Cabinet meeting in a Calabrian beach town near where dozens of migrants died in a shipwreck of a smugglers’ boat.
The Cabinet decreed a new crime — people smuggling that results in the death of migrants — punishable by up to 30 years in prison, an exceptionally stiff sentence for crimes involving facilitating illegal immigration.
Eighty people survived and at least 91 perished in the shipwreck, just off Cutro’s beach, prompting questions over whether Italian rescue vessels should have gone to the aid of the boat as it was buffeted by high waves and gusts.
“The signal that we wanted to give right away was that the smugglers can’t do what they want and that in Italy you arrive in a legal way,” Meloni’s minister for parliamentary relations, Luca Ciriani, said in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published Tuesday.
But further measures were needed, he said. Ciriani, a prominent member of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots, contended that Italy’s current rules on migrants were more “permissive” than those of other EU countries.
“Here, thanks to humanitarian protection, whoever should be expelled finds the way to stay,” the minister was quoted as saying.
A short stroll away from the Senate building, a small group of people held a demonstration to push for the special protection status to stay.
“There needs to be an integration plan,” said Mamadou Kouassi, a spokesperson for a migrant and refugees group based in Italy’s southern city of Caserta. Kouassi, a migrant from Ivory Coast, recounted how he arrived in Italy after members of the Italian coast guard rescued him at sea in 2005.
”We live in this country, and we want residency permits. We want to work and participate in the economy and development of this country,” he said.
Meloni’s government already has made it more challenging for charity rescue boats to operate in the central Mediterranean Sea. Such boats now are ordered to disembark their rescued passengers at mainland ports that are located far from the area of the sea that has been most deadly for migrants.
AP Videojournalist Gianfranco Stara contributed to this report.
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