Italy has softened harsh rules penalising aid groups that bring undocumented migrants ashore and extended protection for refugees who risk persecution at home.
The so-called “security decrees”, which former Interior Minister and far-right leader Matteo Salvini spearheaded in 2018 and 2019, were amended by a government decree approved by the cabinet late on Monday.
Rescue boats which violate official orders in carrying out their activity will now face lighter fines of up to $59,000, compared with up to $1.18m previously, according to the decree.
The fines for rescue charities that make unauthorised entries into Italian territorial waters are not applicable if charity vessels liaise with their flag state and maritime authorities coordinating search-and-rescue operations and follow their instructions, the government said.
Migrants and refugees will, meanwhile, not be expelled if they “risk being subjected to torture or inhumane treatment” at home, under the new rules, which also make it easier for those who hold special residence permits to obtain a regular working visa.
“The propaganda/Salvini decrees are no more,” tweeted Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the Democratic Party (PD), which is in a coalition government with the populist Five-Star Movement. “We want a more humane and safe Italy.”
The decree was passed late on Monday despite opposition from some Five-Star Movement politicians, who were unwilling to water down rules approved under their former coalition with Salvini’s anti-immigrant League party.
Salvini, who remains a popular figure in Italian politics, denounced the move, while the League said it would start collecting signatures against it.
“Open ports (and wallets) for smugglers and illegal migrants are back,” Salvini said in a statement. “We will stop them.”
A change in the laws, specifically on the issue of fines, had been urged by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who called the penalties “disproportionate”.
The new rules are due to enter into force after they are signed by Mattarella and published in the official gazette. Normally this takes a few days. Parliament will then have to ratify the reform within 60 days, or else its validity will cease. During the process, the rules could be amended further.
The reform announced on Monday was described in a government press release, but its full text was not released. Because of this, a representative of the Association for Legal Studies on Immigration, a group of lawyers engaged on migrant rights issues, told dpa news agency he would wait before passing judgement on it.
Migration reform was one of the stated priorities of the current government when it took office in September 2019, after Salvini moved to the opposition.
Salvini has repeatedly accused aid groups of being complicit with people smugglers by sending out rescue boats to pick up migrants from the fragile vessels in which they set out to sea.
During his 14 months in office, he closed ports to migrant rescue ships and threatened them with hefty fines if they tried to dock, while clamping down on asylum rights to curb arrivals.
Salvini faces the possibility of being tried for illegally detaining migrants and refugees aboard ships when he was interior minister and could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty.