Italy is cracking down on illegal immigration and under an agreement with Libya has begun sending boatloads of migrants back to Africa.  Italy's lower house of parliament has approved  a new security bill by that redefines illegal immigration as a criminal offense.

During a ceremony in the Italian port town of Gaeta, Interior Minister Roberto Maroni gave Libya the first three of six patrol boats as part of an agreement to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. 

Italy has long pressed Libya to better patrol its coasts to prevent boats carrying African immigrants from leaving its shores in search of a better life in Europe. 

Last week, Italy started sending boatloads of migrants it intercepted in international waters back  to Libya without first screening them for asylum claims.  Libyan Ambassador to Italy Hafid Gaddur said his country could process the requests from asylum seekers who might otherwise have presented the requests in Italy.

The U.N. refugee agency has criticized the new policy, saying it is against international law and criticizing Libya's alleged lack of facilities.

But Interior Minister Maroni said Italy needs international backing.

He said in the fight against illegal immigration, there are a lot of instruments at our disposal, but they are not sufficient if there is a lack of international collaboration to combat the trafficking of human beings. 

Maroni said said the European Union must step in and help member states that bear the brunt of illegal immigration in the Mediterranean.  He said Italy is a front-line state against illegal immigration and invests its own funds to protect other European countries. 

Wednesday, Italy's lower house of parliament approved a security bill that redefines illegal immigration as a criminal offense.  The lawmakers voted to fine illegal immigrants up to $15,000 and jail people who house them in Italy. 

The new measures would lengthen the amount of time illegal migrants can spend in detention and allows local officials to set up citizen patrols. 

The new security bill must be approved by the Italian Senate, parliament's upper house, before it becomes law. 

Italy receives the world's fourth-highest number of asylum claims each year after the United States, Canada and France.