Crime law also sets up ‘civilian patrols’. Italians are less sensitive to accusations of racism because Fascist Italy was one of the safest places in Europe for Jews during WWII. During the German occupation, Church institutions in particular were bulging with sheltered Jews — but many ordinary Italians played their part too: A notable contrast with Poland and France

Italy cracked down on illegal immigration and crime with a new law Thursday. For the first time, illegal immigration becomes a crime and Italians are encouraged to report illegals. The controversial law, which passed by 157 votes to 124, also enables private citizens – but mainly former officers – to help the police in crime hotspots.

Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government, which came to power on a strong law-and-order ticket stressing links between illegal immigration and crime, said it was ”proud” of the law. Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said it would discourage migrants from targeting Italy and make the country safer.

But the centre-left opposition claimed it made Italy ”less civilised” and announced a campaign of civil disobedience to hinder its application. It also claimed the law could worsen prison overcrowding. A group of leftist intellectuals called for widescale protests against what it called a ”racist” law.

The Catholic Church again thundered against the law, saying it ”criminalised” immigrants and stressing that migration was one of ”the fundamental rights of mankind”. The Vatican criticised the law for ”focusing on crime and leaving integration completely out of the picture”.

The European Commission said it would see if the law complies with European Union law. Justice Commissioner Jacques Barrot said it was important that another part of the law, automatic expulsions for people jailed for more than two years, should not be applied to EU citizens such as Romanians. The law covers a wide range of issues, including national registers for the homeless and disco bouncers, tougher jail conditions for mafiosi and making businesses report mafia extortion.

But its main focus is on illegal immigration. As well as the opposition and the Catholic Church, the law has also been criticised by human rights groups and immigrant associations. Maroni said these strictures were based on misinformation.

The law follows another controversial move, to return migrants rescued at sea to Libya, which critics say jeopardises asylum rights. Under the new immigration crackdown, people caught entering or living in Italy without a permit will not be arrested but they will given immediate expulsion orders and face fines ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 euros. The law also says that Italians – unless they are doctors or school heads who will be exempted – will be obliged to report illegal immigrants.

The bill triples the period of time that foreigners can be held in detention centres from two to six months in order to allow sufficient time to process their deportation, should they not be granted asylum. Other aspects of the law include tough fines for landlords who rent to illegal immigrants, no public services for babies born in Italy to parents without legal status and a longer waiting period for foreigners seeking citizenship through marriage.

The law also authorises ‘citizen patrols’. The government has stressed that the patrols will only be tasked with reporting crime but the opposition claims the government is contracting out policing to private individuals. It also fears the patrols will turn into vigilante gangs.