, ROME, May 16 – Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni on Saturday defended a controversial new policy of returning boat people to Libya without giving them a chance to apply for asylum.
"We will continue to follow this approach because it is the right approach for fighting clandestine immigration," Maroni said at an event honouring police in the northwestern city of Varese.
Rome began the new policy earlier this month under an agreement with Tripoli, the point of departure for thousands of would-be immigrants from many mainly African countries.
Coast guard and navy vessels have returned hundreds of boat people to Libya since the policy took effect.
Maroni dismissed opposition criticism of the policy by recalling that it was initiated under the previous centre-left government of Romano Prodi.
"I’m not the one who framed this accord but my predecesseur Giulio Amato under the Prodi government," he told the ANSA news agency. "I’m merely implementing it."
Human rights and humanitarian groups slammed the change, as well as the Vatican and the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner.
Meanwhile Foreign Minister Franco Frattini suggested Saturday that immigrants could apply for asylum "directly aboard the ships" after they are intercepted.
"Clearly we cannot have 100 people enter Italy just to get three or four requests for asylum," he said at a meeting of the European People’s Party, a formation of former Christian Democrats, in northeastern Trieste.
The remark is at odds with figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which has said that last year 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy sought political or humanitarian asylum, and half of those obtained it.