The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, has criticized Wednesday a plan by Italy to use the navy in its efforts to stop illegal immigration. The refugee agency is warning that the government's policy could result in the deaths of innocent people.

The government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi recently announced that its navy will be given tough new powers to check boats suspected of carrying illegal immigrants. The navy will be authorized to board and inspect boats believed to be smuggling immigrants to Italy.

For some time, criminal gangs have been using the long, exposed Italian coastline as an easy entry point for illegal immigrants into Europe. Many are smuggled in rubber dinghies or speedboats across the Adriatic Sea during the night. Others arrive in the hundreds on larger fishing vessels.

The nationalities of the immigrants vary. A large number are Kurds. But there are also North Africans, Chinese, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans. Not all of them want to stay in Italy. Some use the country as a gateway to northern Europe.

The U.N. refugee agency warned that the navy's increased role could lead to deaths. It also expressed concern over what it said was Italy's lack of attention in matters regarding asylum.

In a statement, the U.N. agency said that the government had not outlined the measures to be taken with the people found on board the inspected boats. It said no details have been made available on the different treatment that should be granted to asylum seekers and refugees.

In an interview Wednesday with an Italian newspaper, Italy's defense minister, Antonio Martino, explained that the government had adopted a more severe policy toward illegal immigration to avoid the spread of xenophobia in Italy.

Although immigrants in Italy make up just 2.2 percent of the population - one of the lowest rates in Europe - many Italians believe there are too many. Mr. Martino said many illegal immigrants come to Italy not to work, but to commit crimes. The defense minister said the government has to take action before Italian public opinion begins calling for a total closure of Italy's borders.