By Giulia Segreti
MILAN (Reuters) - Italy's interior minister said on Tuesday he saw light at the end of the tunnel for curbing migrant flows from Libya after a slowdown in arrivals across the Mediterranean in recent months.
But a United Nations investigator said that Italy's recent effort to draw up a code regulating the operations of humanitarian ships rescuing migrants at sea would cause more deaths.
The subject of immigration is dominating Italy's political agenda ahead of general elections due before May next year, with public opinion increasingly hostile to migrants. Almost 600,000 migrants have arrived in Italy over the past four years.
"We are still under the tunnel, it's a long tunnel, but I start seeing the light at the end of it," Interior Minister Marco Minniti told a news conference.
After a surge in migrant arrivals from Libya at the start of the year, the numbers have slowed. Data from the Interior Ministry on Tuesday showed that 97,293 people had reached Italy so far in 2017, down 4.15 percent from the same period in 2016.
Minniti said that these trends would continue in August but did not comment further.
Italy has approached the migrant problem with a dual track strategy, strengthening Libya's efforts to fight smuggling and at the same time putting pressure on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in rescue operations.
"It was important to intervene on the other side of the Mediterranean and we have focused on Libya. It seemed difficult, but it now appears that something is moving," he added.
In Libya, Italy has trained members of the coastguard and upgraded its fleet, in line with the EU's investments to support search and rescue operations at sea as well as those along its borders.
Minniti said that attention would also be given to the conditions of migrants brought back from sea to Libya and that Italy would start distributing aid in the cities of Sabratha and Zowarah, two hubs for the smuggling of migrants.
At home, the Italian government has introduced a code of conduct for the operations NGOs, demanding that armed police travel on their boats to help root out people smugglers.
Five out of the of eight groups operating in the southern Mediterranean agreed to the terms so far. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has refused to sign so far.
Hours earlier, a member of the United Nations largest body of independent experts said Italy's policy could restrict the NGOs' life-saving work and result in more deaths.
"This code of conduct and the overall action plan suggest that Italy, the EU Commission and the EU Member states deem the risks and the reality of deaths at sea a price worth paying in order to deter migrants and refugees," Agnes Callamard said in a statement.
Minniti said he would meet his counterparts from Libya, Chad, Niger and Mali on Aug. 28 and that he would soon meet in Rome the mayors of the main Libyan cities involved.
"A democratic country (like Italy) does not chase migrants flows, but governs them... ungoverned flows threaten a country's democracy," Minniti said. "Italy is not retreating but remains firmly committed to rescues at sea."
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome, editing by Alister Doyle)