As a human rights activist who has lived and worked in Italy for ten years, I was pleasantly surprised when the new parliament elected Laura Boldrini, the forthright former spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Italy, as president of the lower house on Saturday. Her election is a reminder that Italy’s migration and asylum system, largely ignored in the election campaign, is in urgent need of reform.

Italy has changed in the last three decades from a country of emigration to one of immigration and asylum. Its reaction has been chaotic and confused, and sometimes downright cruel. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Italy’s response to boat migration.

Each year Italy saves countless boat migrants in distress at sea, but it also pushed people back to almost certain ill-treatment in Gaddafi-era Libya and continues to squabble with Malta every year over rescue responsibilities and where those rescued should be disembarked. Many migrants and asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children, who arrive as stowaways on ferries from Greece are summarily returned without proper screening or access to information about their rights.

Though amply foretold, the arrival by sea of tens of thousands of people fleeing North Africa in 2011 threw into disarray the country’s already problematic system for hosting and processing asylum seekers and migrants. No doubt Italy, like Greece, faces an unfair immigration burden due to geography and lack of solidarity from other European Union states; however it can and should do more to ensure a rights-respecting response.

Eventually the government implemented the “North Africa Emergency” plan, channeling arrivals from conflict-torn Libya (the vast majority sub-Saharan Africans) into asylum reception centers, including specially created ones, with vastly different conditions and services. Extended a variety of times, the emergency plan, and central government funding that goes with it, are set to expire at the end of March.

Policies have been adopted to help the most vulnerable, but many of the estimated 12,000 to 13,000 people currently in these centers are likely to end up on the streets, with short-term permission to stay in the country and a 500 euro good-bye gift in their pockets.

They will join legions of others living on the streets or squatting in abandoned buildings, like the infamous Salaam Palace in Rome, home to some 800 refugees who receive no government assistance or help integrating. Many will seek work alongside undocumented migrants in the informal economy, in sectors like agriculture, construction, and domestic work, where they face exploitation and abuse.

The fate of Tunisians fleeing economic collapse and chaos—roughly 28,000 in 2011—depends on when they set foot on Italian shores. All who arrived between January and midnight on April 5, 2011 were given six-month renewable humanitarian visas; now they must apply before the end of March either to convert the visa into resident permits, or apply for assisted voluntary return. If they do neither, or do not meet the requirements for residence, they will be treated like Tunisians who arrived since April 6, 2011: subject to detention and deportation. Italy had scrambled to secure, on April 5, 2011, a readmission agreement with Tunisia – similar to an existing one with Egypt – allowing summary deportation for nationals discovered entering the country irregularly.

International rights bodies, including the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN special rapporteur on the rights of migrants, as well as the Italian Senate’s human rights committee and numerous nongovernmental organizations, have raised serious concerns about conditions in immigration detention facilities, where people can be held for up to 18 months while Italy tries to deport them. In December 2012, a judge in Sicily absolved three migrants for their role in a violent protest at a detention center in Crotone as “legitimate defense” against the terrible conditions. Akin to prisons, they nonetheless lack the structures and programs (for example recreational activities) suitable for long-term stay.

Successive Italian governments have failed to put in place transparent, consistent and humane migration and asylum policies, responding only to crises as they occur.

Once in place, Italy’s new government should shift away from this emergency mentality. It is in Italy’s interest to institute a coherent system that ensures high minimum standards in reception centers and to develop a genuine integration strategy to help asylum seekers and refugees become active members of society. Administrative detention of irregular migrants should be used as a last resort for the shortest period possible, and in adequate facilities. Readmission agreements should be revisited to ensure that no one is returned to their country of origin or a transit country before they have had an individual assessment of their situation and protection needs. Finally, Italy should strengthen cooperation with neighboring countries to prevent deaths at sea.

In her acceptance speech, Laura Boldrini spoke forcefully of the need to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, and movingly of those who have died trying to reach Europe seeking refuge and a better life. As a permanent resident of Italy devoted to defending human rights, I can only hope this country’s next government lives up to her call.