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TALLINN/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU interior ministers on Thursday urged non-governmental organizations rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean work more closely with Libya's coastguard, amid concerns that their activity is encouraging people to attempt the sea crossing.
Escaping wars and poverty, more than 360,000 refugees and migrants arrived on European shores across the Mediterranean last year. More than 85,000 have reached Italy so far this year.
The European Commission fears that NGOs running rescue services off the Libyan coast are providing a "pull factor", encouraging migrants to risk their lives in flimsy dinghies in the hope of being picked up and then ferried over to Italy.
Meeting in the Estonian capital Tallinn, the interior ministers agreed to beef up the Libyan coastguard, step up deportations of failed asylum-seekers and fund African countries from which people are fleeing poverty to find work in Europe.
"Of course, we have to help Italy overcome this crisis and all countries have to make efforts to that end," said Estonian Interior Minister Andres Anvelt, whose country holds the EU's rotating six-month presidency.
"We have to establish a very clear return policy and deal with the reasons for the migration crisis at their source, that is, in the countries of the refugees’ origin," he said.
Italy's Interior Minister Marco Minniti said NGOs were conducting about 34 percent of the rescue operations and so should work closely with the Libyan coastguard in their waters.
"These are civil operations and therefore need to be coordinated (with the coastguard) just as much as they need to liaise with the judicial authorities and the police regarding actions and investigations against (people) smugglers," he said.
However, NGOs have accused Libya's coastguard of rights abuses and say giving it greater responsibility will lead to more deaths at sea.
Oxfam expressed concern that the EU's plans would "only increase the suffering of people on the move".
"European governments should be supporting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and generally treating migrants in a more fair, transparent and legal manner," it said in a statement.
On Tuesday the European Commission offered Italy more funding to deal with Mediterranean migrants and said Italy would draw up a code of conduct for NGOs running rescue operations.
Minniti said Italy would work quickly on the code of conduct.
At a separate conference in Rome on Thursday, Italy's Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano stressed the importance of strengthening Libya's southern borders to discourage migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
"We have to stop the migrants getting to Libya and to do that we have to help the countries further south," he said, comparing people traffickers who ferry the migrants toward Italy as "the biggest travel agency in the world".
Reporting by Julia Fioretti; Additional reporting by Gavin Jones in Rome; Editing by Gareth Jones