Rights watchdog denounces Italy immigration law as 'inhumane'

FILE PHOTO: MSF rescue ship Geo Barents arrives in Bari with migrants on board

ROME (Reuters) - A new Italian law that narrows asylum rights in an effort to dissuade migrants from heading to Italy is repressive and inhumane, a leading rights watchdog said on Friday.

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's nationalist government drew up the legislation after a shipwreck off southern Italy in February that killed more than 90 migrants.

The law, which was approved by parliament last week, envisages tougher jail terms for human smugglers and limits the scope for newcomers to receive "special protection" residency permits if they don't qualify for full asylum.

"The new law will have a devastating impact on migrants' rights, including their ability to seek protection, access fair asylum procedures, and enjoy freedom of movement," Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

The government has said the previous system was abused, noting that in 2022 authorities had handed out 10,506 special protection permits against 7,494 permits offering refugee status and 7,039 that granted another form of international protection.

Controversially, the law also halts state-funded Italian language courses and eliminates legal advice services for migrants hosted in official reception centres.

Meloni's government has said it wants to direct resources at migrants who come to Italy via legal channels.

"Far from offering a rational, humane response to the rise in people crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, the new legislation doubles down on the government's focus on deterrence and criminalization," Human Rights Watch said.

Meloni's conservative bloc won power last year vowing to crackdown on boat migrants, but its efforts have so far failed, with new arrivals surging in recent months. Latest data shows that 45,157 people reached Italy from Jan. 1- May 11, against 12,324 in the same period last year.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, Editing by William Maclean)