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EU plans tighter leash on NGO ships

Paris/Rome  - Migrant rescue missions operated by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the Mediterranean should be regulated by a code of conduct, the governments of Italy, Germany and France said in a joint statement on Monday.

Italy, which proposed the code and was tasked with drafting it, last week threatened to turn away NGO ships carrying rescued migrants from its ports unless other European Union countries agreed to greater burden-sharing on refugee

The EU border agency Frontex and Italian prosecutors have accused charities of unintentionally encouraging migrant departures and making life easier for smugglers by carrying out rescues closer and closer to the Libyan shore. The NGOs say more people would drown if they did not intervene, and have urged European Union governments to open legal channels of migration so that people would no longer have incentives to risk their lives on dangerous sea journeys.

Support promised

The French, German and Italian interior ministers, who met in Paris on Sunday with the European Commission ahead of July 6-7 EU-level talks on migration, also agreed to beef up support to the nascent Libyan coastguard, the statement said.

They also promised to: support UN bodies to improve human rights standards in Libyan migrant centres; explore options to beef up controls on Libya's southern border; improve EU migrant deportation schemes; and "fully implement and accelerate" migrant relocations.

An EU burden-sharing plan provides that other member states should take 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy over the 2015-17 period. So far only 7,281 have been relocated, amid resistance from many EU governments.  There are also procedural obstacles, as only people from countries with a high rate of accepted asylum claims - such as Syria or Eritrea - are eligible for transfer, and most of those landing in Italy do not meet that criterion.

The ministers' statement made no mention of Rome's demands for migrants rescued at sea to be taken to other ports beyond Italy's, suggesting that no consensus was found with Germany and France on the issue.

Burden-sharing on migration

In a speech to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni said the EU should agree to greater burden-sharing on migration "if it wants to stay true to its principles, its history and its civilization." Amid reports of attacks on migrant centres and growing public hostility towards migrants, Gentiloni also said it was necessary to prevent Italy's situation from becoming "unsustainable," fuelling "hostile reactions in our social fabric."

More discussions on how to "step up" cooperation on migration were expected at Thursday's and Friday's gathering of EU interior ministers in Tallinn, Estonia. The European Commission will present ideas about it on Tuesday, a spokeswoman said in Brussels. Italian data updated on Friday showed that 83,360 boat migrants had landed since the start of the year, a 19-per-cent increase on 2016. There were also 2,169 migrants who died since January 1 in sea crossings, according to the International Organization for Migration.

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Interactive zooming map with information about the main refugee routes between May 2014 and September 2015