ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government passed a law that clamps down on asylum rights and boosts funds for police, handing Interior Minister and right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini his first major legislative win.
The lower house of parliament voted 396 to 99 late on Wednesday to pass the law championed by Salvini, who took office in June in a coalition with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.
The new law eliminates humanitarian grounds for granting protection to refugees — asylum that is not tied to political persecution or war. It also funnels millions of euros to law enforcement and anti-mafia administrators.
“I’m willing to host women and children who are escaping from war ... But all the others, no,” Salvini said on Thursday, referring to the new legislation. “I don’t want to be seen as an idiot.”
Italy will still award asylum to war refugees or victims of political persecution. But it will no longer hand out “humanitarian” asylum, which was given to those who had “serious reasons” to flee their home country - a category that has often included homosexuals fleeing harsh anti-gay laws in Africa.
More than 20,000 people, or 25 percent of those who sought asylum, got “humanitarian” protection last year, and the tens of thousands of others received it in previous years will now likely lose their legal status when their documents expire.
The League’s lawmakers celebrated the passage of the law on Thursday by unfurling a banner outside the lower house of parliament that read: “The Salvini decree is law; the good times (for migrants) are over.”
Salvini campaigned on an anti-immigration platform against the backdrop of hundreds of thousands of migrant-ship arrivals from North Africa in recent years, and he closed the country’s ports to migrant rescue ships after taking office.
Largely as a result of his hard line on immigration, the League, after winning some 17 percent in the March election, has doubled its support, rocketing past its 5-Star partner.
The League’s backing is now 34 percent, compared with 25 percent for 5-Star, a Noto Sondaggi poll published this week showed.
Just before the passage of the legislation on Wednesday, Salvini reaffirmed his tough stand on immigration, saying he opposed a United Nations pact to regulate the treatment of migrants that Italy had supported, prompting Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to call a parliamentary debate on the issue.
The new law also foresees the use of electric tasers for the first time by local police, and increases jail time for people who promote illegal occupations of public or private buildings.
In response to a series of attacks in Europe aimed at causing mass casualties, the law heightens controls on people who rent trucks, and strips naturalised foreigners who are convicted on terrorism charges of their Italian citizenship.
Reporting by Steve Scherer, editing by Larry King