Rome, Italy – Italy’s council of ministers adopted on Monday a decree to regulate the government’s much-touted crackdown on migration.

Dubbed the “Salvini decree” after Matteo Salvini, the country’s far-right interior minister who drafted it, the document is an emergency instrument that parliament must convert into law within 60 days, but can also be extended. 

“It’s a step forward to make Italy safer,” Salvini wrote just after the meeting, “to combat more effectively the mafia and traffickers, to reduce the costs of excessive immigration, to expel more quickly criminals and fake refugees, to revoke citizenship from terrorists, to strengthen police powers.”

Controversial parts of the decree include a crackdown on issuing permits for humanitarian reasons that Italy grants to applicants who do not qualify for asylum or subsidiary protection, as well as the planned downsizing of the municipality-led reception system (SPRAR), praised for facilitating integration.

“What we see in the new decree is another step in the Italian government’s repressive policies, aimed at an indiscriminate stop of flows and at the criminalisation of migration, at sea and on land,” Anne Garella, head of Doctors without Borders (known by its French initials, MSF) Italy, said in a statement.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the decree was in line with human rights

“We are revising legislation to make it more effective,” he told reporters. 

The aim is to reorganise the whole system of recognising international protection to come in line with European standards.”

The decree extends the time migrants can be detained in repatriation centres from three to six months, and allows for the revocation of refugee status from those who commit crimes including drug trafficking and mugging. The decree also provides for stricter rules for obtaining citizenship.

Crackdown on asylum applications

The decree promises to end the case-by-case nature of decisions on “humanitarian protection” permits, the form of international protection most commonly granted in Italy. 

Conte said the instrument was not being dismantled, but simply regulated in a way that “does not undermine international commitments and the protection of basic rights”. 

Italy examined 81,000 applications in 2017.

In one on four cases, the applicant was granted “humanitarian protection,” which comes with a two-year residency permit, while refugee status and subsidiary protection both amounted to about eight percent of the total outcomes. More than 50 percent of applications were rejected. 

Salvini had already asked asylum commissions to limit the number of humanitarian permits issued in an official letter last summer.

From now on, Salvini said at the press conference, humanitarian protection will be granted to “victims of serious work exploitation, of trafficking, domestic violence, serious natural disasters, to those in need of medical care, and for civil merit”.

Concerns remain that the measure will lead to more people finding themselves undocumented and without rights on Italian streets.

According to the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), the number could rise to 60,000 more in the next two years than under the current system.

ISPI’s Matteo Villa said the figure was calculated by considering the applications currently pending – about 130,000 – as well as the fact that humanitarian permits have to be renewed every two years, and some will expire.

“With this measure and without being able to repatriate people, the effect is creating new forms of irregularity,” Villa told Al Jazeera. 

“Repatriations are very difficult to do, and the majority of sub-Saharan states only repatriate less than 10 percent of people who receive a deportation order. It’s hard to imagine the feasibility of something as ambitious as going from 5,000 to 7,000 repatriations a year, to 40,000 to 50,000.”

Italy currently has repatriation deals with countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Nigeria, but it cannot deport asylum seekers coming from Mali or Senegal, for instance.

Migrant rights groups and local authorities have expressed concerns about changes to the system of local reception and integration (SPRAR), which from now on will be aimed exclusively at those who have been granted asylum and at vulnerable cases. 

According to Irma Melini, president of the migration commission at ANCI (National Association of Italian Municipalities), the downsizing of the SPRAR system would have “a disruptive effect on the ground, making it hard for local administrators to protect citizens”, as she stated in a newspaper interview.

It would leave migrant reception at the mercy of the parallel “emergency” system of reception centres, often privately run, which has made headlines for its dysfunctional nature.

The decree is part of a general crackdown on migration that has caused diplomatic friction in Europe but has earned the interior minister consensus with the Italian electorate, according to recent polls. 

On the Mediterranean front, a decision by the Panama Maritime Authority yesterday to revoke registration from the ship Aquarius 2 means there will be no more NGO ships allowed to perform search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, unless the Aquarius finds a new flag to sail under.

NGOs SOS Mediterranee and MSF, which run the ship, charged the Panamanian authorities were acting under pressure from the Italian government, a claim Salvini denied.

According to UNCHR, while the number of arrivals from Libya has gone down, the percentage of those who do not survive the journey has risen.

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