Italy’s new public security law, passed on August 8, 2009, is the latest in a series of measures by the government to combat the rise in illegal immigration.

The law seeks to deter illegal immigration by making it a criminal offense punishable by fines of €5,000 to €10,000, with prison terms of up to four years for those who defy expulsion orders. The law also allows unarmed civilians to patrol alongside enforcement officers to report and apprehend undocumented individuals. Italian citizens who help hide migrants or fail to report them could face anti-solidarity charges. The new policy deprives undocumented immigrants of basic human rights including freedom from persecution and access to health care. Earlier this year, the Senate enacted another security bill authorizing medical staff to report patients who are illegal immigrants to authorities. These two provisions dissuade migrants from receiving basic medical treatment in hospitals for fear of being reported to Italian officials.

In addition to this new legislation, Italy’s much criticized “push-back” policy cracks down on the arrival of undocumented individuals by sea. In 2008, an estimated 36,000 migrants entered Italy by sea via Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily. The majority comes from Africa in overcrowded, unsafe vessels to escape persecution and violence. A 2008 agreement between Italy and Libya increased the patrol of international waters to interdict the influx of migrants to European countries. Migrants of unknown nationality on the interdicted boats have been either forced onto Libyan vessels or taken directly back to Libya, where authorities allegedly detain and mistreat them.

Migrants on boats intercepted by Libyan authorities are not screened to determine if any individuals are asylum seekers or refugees before being forcibly returned to Libya. Therefore, according to a Human Rights Watch report, the Libyan agreement is in violation of Italy’s obligation as a State Party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the United Nations Convention Against Torture (UNCAT), and European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) not to force the return of people to “countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened, or where they would face a risk of torture or inhuman and degrading treatment.” Migrants that manage to escape Libyan vessels are often subsequently interdicted by Italian officials and held in overcrowded detention centers on Lampedusa. The conditions are so poor that more than half of the detainees are forced to sleep outside under plastic sheeting. Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides assistance to the migrants on the island under a project funded by the Italian Ministry of the Interior and the European Commission, overcrowding in these temporary detention centers has become a humanitarian concern.

The Italian government justifies these draconian measures as a national security issue. Critics, however, attribute these laws to the country’s failure to better facilitate the integration of immigrants into Italian society. The European Union (EU) is also at fault for failing to implement a common immigration approach throughout the EU so that individual countries would be barred from adopting extreme immigration policies. According to many human rights activists, the EU needs to become more involved in protecting immigrants in member states and supporting policies for greater integration of new immigrants.