The Italian government on Wednesday (21 May) presented plans to tighten up its immigration policy, which include making staying in Italy without permission a criminal offence punishable by jail.
The measures also include making the expulsion of immigrants easier and quicker, and reducing the time immigrants without documents can be detained in holding centres from 18 months to 60 days — raising the question of how asylum seekers will be treated.
Irregular immigration has been a central theme in Italy in recent months, particularly during the early parliamentary elections that took place in April and which lead to conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi's return as the country's prime minister.
Following the elections, Mr Berlsuconi appointed Roberto Maroni from the anti-immigrant Northern League as Italy's interior minister.
"The right to not be afraid is a basic one, and a state should guarantee its citizens that," the prime minister said following the first cabinet meeting of his government in Naples.
"I expect to see the new regulations implemented within two months," he added according to a Euronews report.
The EU on Thursday (22 May) declined to comment on the announced Italian immigration measures, saying it had not been officially informed by Rome yet about their precise content.
A spokesperson did however say, that the European Commission would check the new legislation's compatibility with EU law as soon as it received notice of it.
"All of this should be sent to us as soon as possible, and if we have not received this, then of course the standard procedures are infringement procedures. But this will come our way and we will then check its compatibility with EU law," said commission spokesperson Friso Roscam Abbing.
The proposals come as anti-Roma sentiment in particular has been rising in Italy in the last few weeks, prompting criticism by some EU member states, and strong condemnation by human rights groups about how the situation was handled by the Italian government.
Last weekend, Spain's deputy prime minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said that Madrid "rejects violence, racism and the xenophobia, and therefore cannot agree with what is happening in Italy."
For its part, the Romanian government is concerned that because the large majority of the Roma immigrants who have committed offences are Romanian citizens, all Romanian immigrants currently working in Italy may become the targets of "xenophobic attacks", according to Romanian media reports.
Additionally, a number of human and minority rights organisations — including Amnesty International, the Open Society Institute and the European Network against Racism — on Wednesday released a joint statement "condemning firmly the recent attacks against the Roma community in Italy that were carried out by non-state actors, as well as the statements of discriminatory nature made by high ranking Italian politicians."
Calling themselves the "European Roma policy coalition"—set up in March—they demanded "a prompt reaction by the European Commission and the European Council to these events."
Mr Maroni reacted by saying the pressure on the Italian government would not make any difference. "We do not intend to give in, not even slightly," to this pressure, he said according to Italian news agency AGI.