ROME — Thousands of migrants in Italy are anxiously waiting to see if they will lose their housing and benefits following approval of a government-backed law that aims to reduce the number of migrants granted humanitarian protections.

Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has denied speculation that he is "about to kick out pregnant women, children and elderly people on Christmas Eve" from state-run reception centers. Rather, he stressed last week, the new law eliminates the category of "humanitarian protection" for migrants in the future, not retroactively.

But aid groups say eventually the law could affect as many as 20,000 people as their humanitarian permits expire. It was passed at the same time that Italy's populist, anti-migrant government announced it wouldn't attend the signing ceremony in Morocco next week of the U.N. Global Compact on migration.

"This government felt that Italy is offering humanitarian protection to too many people, so it changed the rules on who will receive it," Matteo Villa, an expert on migration with Italy's Institute for the Study of International Politics, told The Associated Press this week.

The law, dubbed the "Salvini Decree," is the latest measure taken by Italy's government to crack down on the more than 640,000 migrants who have arrived in Italy since 2014, most fleeing Libya aboard smugglers' boats.

Many have applied for refugee status. But others have obtained a lesser status granting them special humanitarian protections given the possible risks they might face if returned home. The two-year humanitarian permits enable migrants to live in state-run reception centers and access training and educational programs and find work.

Ultimately, Salvini aims to repatriate those who don't qualify. But sending migrants home is a costly and time-consuming process that requires negotiations with their home countries. According to Eurostat, Italy sent home only 7,045 "irregular" migrants in 2017.

The new law, approved Nov. 28, does still allow for certain migrants to obtain "special" residency permits if they have serious health conditions, are victims of domestic violence, work exploitation or sex trafficking, and those who have escaped from a natural calamity in their home countries or those who have carried out heroic acts in Italy.

But migrants are worried. Barry Tierno, a 19-year-old from Conakry, Guinea, is trying to convert his humanitarian visa into a different status before it expires next October. "I can't stay here without papers," he said.

Emanuela Adeboga, a 21-year-old who arrived from Lagos, Nigeria, with her mother and two sisters in 2016, has similar fears. Her humanitarian permit expires at the end of the month. The family lives in a shared apartment with other humanitarian beneficiaries; the younger girls are in school and mother Elizabeth was given a sewing machine for her tailoring training course.

"I have heard that those who don't have a work contract for at least one year cannot have their visas renewed," Emanuela Adeboga said. "Where should we go?"

There have been sporadic cases of centers kicking people out already, fueling fears that as their residency permits expire, migrants will be out on the street.

Filippo Miraglia, deputy president of ARCI, a prominent Italian non-profit working with migrants, said the law clearly has political aims: to increase the number of "illegal" migrants in Italy while reducing the number of integrated foreigners who can work legally and pay taxes.

"Obviously the more illegal migrants we have on our territory, the more our minister of interior will be able to tell a distorted narrative about migration," he said.

Salvini says he merely wants only legitimate, deserving refugees and migrants to access public housing and benefits.

In addition to removing humanitarian protection, the new law makes it more difficult to acquire Italian citizenship, increases the funds allocated for repatriation, and lengthens the list of crimes that will allow the revocation of protection status.