Italy does not want to become a “multi-ethnic” country and will continue its newly adopted policy of sending boatloads of immigrants and asylum seekers back to North Africa, the prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, said.
Previous Left-wing governments had “opened the doors to clandestine migrants coming from other countries, with an idea of a multi-ethnic Italy,” Mr Berlusconi said.
But that kind of society was “not our idea”, he added, as he sought to reassure Italians who were alarmed at the number of immigrants pouring into the country, particularly from eastern Europe and Africa.
The prime minister’s vision of Italy was condemned by the centre-Left opposition. “Yes, Mr Premier, we have a different idea of Italy: multi-ethnic, pluralistic, free,” said Giovanna Melandri, of the Democratic Party.
“A country in which the colour of your skin, or race or religion doesn’t matter, but, rather, honesty and sincerity of heart do.” Since launching a tough new policy on boat people last week, Italy has turned back six boats carrying a total of 1,500 immigrants and asylum seekers which were trying to reach the country’s southernmost outpost, the island of Lampedusa.
The vessels were escorted back to Libya, the most popular jumping off point for clandestine immigrants, by the Italian coast guard and navy.
The boat people, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, trek across the Sahara and pay people smugglers thousands of pounds in the hope of securing a new life in Europe.
In the past, Italy would accept the immigrants and take them to the mainland for processing and identification before deciding whether to grant them asylum or some other form of protection.
The new approach was condemned by the UN’s refugee agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Vatican and Italian opposition MPs, who called it “a disgrace”.
Mr Berlusconi, 72, dismissed the criticism, saying that from now on only those who met conditions for political asylum and set foot on Italian soil would be allowed into the country.
“I see no scandal,” he said. “It’s clear that in the sea we will lend assistance” to boat people. When migrants were rescued in international waters, Italy had the right not to take them in, he said.
On Sunday another boat, this time carrying 240 immigrants, was stopped by Italian patrol boats and escorted back to Libya.
The interior minister, Roberto Maroni, who is a member of the anti-immigrant Northern League party, part of the ruling coalition, hailed the return of migrants as “historic”.
He added that the “get-tough policy will continue as long as the boats set out” from the North African coast.
The government also has plans to force doctors and teachers to go to the authorities if they suspect their patients or pupils are illegal immigrants.