Italy-Libya migrant deal lays groundwork for EU summit
Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni has said he has reached a deal with Libya to try to stop migrants from setting out from Libyan shores in huge numbers for Europe.
Mr Gentiloni told reporters after meeting Libyan premier Fayez Serraj in Rome on Thursday that the two sides signed a memo of understanding to step up co-operation and, with Italian assistance, help fight the migrant trafficking.
A European Union summit in Malta on Friday is focused on finding ways to reduce the number of migrants leaving from Libya.
Italy's Coast Guard has co-ordinated the rescue of hundreds of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean near Libya in the last few years.
Mr Gentiloni called the deal "just a piece" of a wider plan that will be discussed in Malta and will need economic commitment from the bloc.
European Council president Donald Tusk said on Thursday that the EU summit would pave the way for humanitarian action to save lives of poor people with no chance of being granted permission to remain in Europe.
The meeting comes amid global criticism of US president Donald Trump's restrictions on refugees and immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Mr Tusk wants tougher action from the 28 EU leaders to break smuggling rings and the dangerous journeys on which they take migrants because "this is the only way to stop people dying in the desert and at sea, and this is also the only way to gain control over migration in Europe".
"This goal is within our reach," he said on the eve of the summit.
After reaching a deal with Turkey to curb the number of desperate migrants setting off for Europe, EU leaders have been contemplating a similar accord with the internationally recognised but largely ineffective Libyan government.
Migrant traffickers have funnelled hundreds of thousands of economic and war refugees into southern Libya to await passage towards Italy's shores.
Mr Serraj told reporters in Rome that his agreement with Mr Gentiloni calls for more support for Libyan Coast Guard vessels patrolling the waters off the country's north and "humanitarian repatriation" of migrants.
He said economic deals between Italy and Libya are being discussed.
Human rights groups and some EU leaders have worried about the fate of migrants who set off for Europe from Libya.
Most are economic refugees from Africa and unlikely to be eligible for asylum.
Some who reached Italy described being held in Libya for months before their smugglers arranged for flimsy boats to send them across the Mediterranean, where most ended up being rescued in operations co-ordinated by the Italian coast guard.
Survivors have told of rape, torture, inadequate food and forced labour while awaiting passage from Libya, which has largely been left lawless after the 2011 demise of Muammar Gaddafi and his regime.
Mr Gentiloni said the EU's "economic commitment" would be vital for any success of the Libyan-Italian plan.
Mr Tusk had already discussed Italy's move with German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande and said that the leaders had agreed on the need to support Italy and the memorandum.
"Europe should and will stand by Italy in sharing responsibility," he said.
With warmer weather coming, fears are that weekly migrant drownings in the Mediterranean will increase.
Last year, at least 5,083 people died in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
The EU is now working with Libyan authorities to make sure the migrants do not board rickety sloops and head into the unforgiving waters, and will require that the bloc step up its aid to Libya's government.
In the draft summit declaration obtained by The Associated Press ahead of the summit in Malta, the 28 EU leaders say "authorities (need) to acquire control over the land and sea borders" to combat smuggling.
It says the EU will give priority to training and equipping the Libyan coast guard.
The EU already has a military presence in international waters off Libya to counter smugglers and save lives but moving inside its maritime border would have a bigger impact on keeping migrants from boarding smugglers' boats.
"We are talking about a complicated situation on the ground," said EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.
"We have an interest as Europeans to invest."
Beyond Libya, EU investment to counter people from leaving Africa would have to be extended over a big swathe of nations from Ethiopia to Nigeria, making for a very costly arrangement.
In Turkey, the EU has committed three billion euro (£2.4 billion) through to the end of the year to help the mostly Syrian refugees there.
On Thursday, Ms Merkel had a long meeting in Ankara before moving to Valletta.
She praised Turkey for its "extraordinary" efforts on refugees and pledged to do everything to ensure the EU money can be spent as quickly as possible.