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Italy draws up code of conduct for NGO migrant boat rescues

The Italian government has drafted a controversial code of conduct for charity boats carrying out migrant rescue missions, limiting their operations. NGOs have warned that the code could put thousands of lives at risk.

In an attempt to stem rising migrant flows, the Italian government completed a draft code of conduct for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that carry out search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea, an official said on Wednesday.

Italy's 11-point plan reportedly includes new rules that would ban charity boats from making phone calls or firing flares that could signal to human traffickers that it was a good time to launch their migrant boats. The groups would also no longer be allowed to enter Libyan territorial waters.

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Additionally, should any group refuse to accept the terms, they could be barred access to Italian ports, meaning the charity ships would have to divert to other countries to disembark refugees.

Code puts 'more at risk of drowning'

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) heavily criticized Italy's plan on Wednesday after receiving a leaked draft of the code.

"Any code of conduct, if necessary, should have the goal of making rescue operations at sea more effective at saving lives," said Amnesty and HRW in a joint statement.

The code of conduct is expected to be presented in the next few days to nine NGOs that regularly deploy rescue boats just off the Libyan coast.

Under the code, NGO ships will no longer be allowed to transfer refugees to other ships. Instead, they will have to bring rescued migrants into port themselves, thereby limiting their operations.

"This would force NGOs search-and-rescue teams to move away for long periods from the area where they are needed, leaving more people at risk of drowning in the Central Mediterranean," the groups said.

An estimated 13,000 people have drowned since 2014 trying to make the crossing to Italy.

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Pressure on Italy

Italy has been looking to improve cooperation with other European Union nations to help with the rising number of new arrivals. More than 85,200 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, according to the latest data released by the Italian interior ministry, up by 8.9 percent over the same period in 2016.

"Italy has done and will continue to do its part in rescuing and welcoming (asylum seekers). But it is fighting at the same time for a migration policy that does not rest on only a few countries, and that is shared by the entire European Union," said Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni on Wednesday.

Gentiloni's comments came as he met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in Trieste - but there was no sign of a deal to relieve pressure on Italy.

Charity boats operated by NGOs have played an increasingly important role in rescue operations, picking up over a third of all migrants brought ashore this year, according to the Italian coast guard.

But NGO rescue operations have come under fire recently, with the Italian government suspected that their presence on the border of Libyan territorial waters encourages migrants and smugglers to risk lives and launch more boats.

NGOs deny these claims, saying that thousands more would die if their boats were not operating in the Mediterranean Sea.

rs/gsw (AFP, Reuters)

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