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More deaths at sea as NGOs discuss Italy’s code of conduct proposals

Rome -    Spanish non-governmental organization (NGO) Proactiva Open Arms said one of its vessels discovered a rubber dinghy containing 11 dead bodies, including pregnant women and mothers whose children were among the 167 survivors.

Communicating via Twitter, the NGO posted a graphic picture of the tragedy, and said: "Who will take responsibility for the 11 people who died at sea? Who will console their relatives [who were] aboard? EU governments, it is in your hands." Pro Activa founder Oscar Camps said the code of conduct under discussion in Rome was a distraction from saving lives, as was an anti-NGO naval mission by far-right extremists.

Exchange of charges

Camps was referring to the pan-European Identitarian Movement, which has hired a ship and is sailing towards Sicily with the intention of intercepting migrants before NGOs and repatriating them to North Africa. Italy is seeking to regulate NGO work, with EU support, after EU border agency Frontex and Italian prosecutors accused charities of encouraging migrant departures and making life easier for smugglers by carrying out sea rescues closer and closer to the Libyan shore.

A draft, as seen by dpa, asks non-governmental groups to sign up to 12 commitments, including promises not to trespass into Libyan territorial waters, not to turn off onboard tracking devices and cooperate with investigations into migrant smuggling. Light-signal communications between rescuers and migrant traffickers - alleged by Italian prosecutors and denied by NGOs - are also banned, as well as the offshore transfer of migrants from one rescue boat to another.

More transparency

Furthermore, NGOs are asked to be transparent about their funding, retrieve when possible migrants' boats and outboard engines, and - in what may be the most controversial point - allow Italian judicial police officers on board "for information and evidence gathering."

If NGOs do not comply, they may face safety inspections, demands for extra certifications or may even be refused "disembarcations in national ports in non-emergency situations," the Italian draft paper says.

Different opinion

Italy has for weeks threatened to turn away foreign NGO ships unless EU partners agreed to greater burden-sharing on migration. But the legal and practical feasibility of such proposals is in doubt, as is the binding nature of any code of conduct. Sea-Watch, a German NGO engaged in migrant rescues, released this week an opinion by Violeta Moreno-Lax, an academic at Queen Mary University of London, rubbishing proposed regulation as "nonsensical," "dishonest" and "illegal."

Since the Balkan route via Turkey and Greece was closed off last year, Italy has become the main entry point for Europe-bound sea migrants. In the year to date, more than 93,000 people have landed on its shores, up 6 per cent from the same period of 2016.

Overall, nearly 114,000 people have entered Europe via the Mediterranean since January, and 2,361 have died or gone missing at sea, according to the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency.