Rome (AFP) - Italy on Wednesday began enforcing a controversial code of conduct for charity boats rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean as new figures revealed a sharp drop in the numbers of people arriving from Libya.
A boat operated by Germany's Jugend Rettet, one of several NGO's which have refused to sign the code, was intercepted off Lampedusa and escorted to the outlying Italian island for "routine checks", a coastguard spokesman told AFP.
The organisation said its boat, the Iuventa, had not been impounded and the crew had not been arrested, but could not immediately provide further details of the coastguard operation.
Only three of the nine NGO's operating search-and-rescue activities in waters off Libya have accepted the new rules, which Italian authorities say are necessary to ensure the boats are not effectively encouraging migrants to embark on the perilous crossing.
The NGOs have particularly objected to a requirement to allow an Italian police official to travel on each boat and a ban on moving rescued migrants from one aid vessel to another while still at sea, which they say could result in avoidable deaths.
Some 600,000 mostly African migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya since the start of 2014, putting the country's reception facilities under strain and the centre-left government under pressure over the crisis.
For most of this year the numbers of new arrivals have pointed to 2017 breaking all previous records.
But July, normally a busy month, saw the trend reversed, suggesting various efforts to close down the Libya-Italy route to Europe could be having an impact.
The Interior Ministry said 11,193 people had been registered at Italian ports in July, compared with 23,552 in July 2016.
Arrivals for the first seven months of this year were 95,214, up 0.78 percent on the same period last year.
Italy has been working with the Libyan authorities to strengthen the north African state's coastguard with training and new equipment in the hope of making it more effective in policing traffickers and intercepting migrant boats before they reach international waters.
The Italian parliament was Wednesday discussing further support for Libya in the form of a naval mission comprised of a logistics ship and patrol boat dedicated to supporting Libyan coastguard activities.
Officials believe boats being sent back to Libyan ports will have a powerful deterrent effect on would-be migrants considering paying traffickers for passage to Europe.
But the approach has been criticised by international rights groups who say people returned to troubled Libya face detention in squalid camps and abuse at the hands of traffickers.