An overcrowded dinghy with migrants from different African countries is followed by members of the German NGO Jugend Rettet as they approach the Iuventa vessel during a rescue operation, off the Libyan coast in the Mediterranean Sea September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra(reuters_tickers)
By Gabriela Baczynska and Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Encouraged by their success in halting a mass influx of refugees by closing Greek borders and cutting a controversial deal with Turkey, EU leaders are getting tough on African migrants too.
A Brussels summit on Thursday will endorse pilot projects to pressure African governments via aid budgets to slow an exodus of people north across the Sahara and Mediterranean. It also wants swift results from an EU campaign to deport large numbers who reach Italy.
"By the end of the year, we need to see results," one senior EU diplomat said on Wednesday.
Arrivals in Italy so far this year are nearly six percent higher than the same period of 2015. Italy received 154,000 migrants last year and this year's figure will be similar or slightly higher.
Italy is sheltering 165,000 asylum seekers, almost three times as many as in 2014. The buildup has accelerated since Italy's northern neighbours clamped down on border controls.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has told EU allies that Rome can cope for now but is worried about the future.
EU officials want to put in place tougher measures to identify illegal migrants and fly them back to Africa before next year's migration season, when thousands are expected to take to precarious boats from Libya.
"We need to clean this up and have migration compacts with African countries in place before next spring," a senior EU official said.
That will depend on persuading African states - initially a group of five - to take back their own citizens. The EU is already bringing African officials to Italy to identify citizens who may try to conceal their identity to avoid being sent home.
At their summit, European Union leaders will agree to use money and trade to force African countries to curb emigration, in a shift towards a more hard-nosed joint foreign policy.
African leaders may be persuaded to agree with the new policy by the fact that the EU is the continent's biggest aid donor.
The EU has turned a wary eye on Africa, a young continent where millions live in poverty, after last year's uncontrolled influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East thrust the bloc into a deep political crisis.
It wants fewer to come and it wants to deport more.
EU leaders will therefore decide on Thursday that they want to get "measurable results in terms of preventing illegal migration and returning irregular migrants", according to a draft summit statement seen by Reuters.
It said they would also agree to "create and apply the necessary leverage, by using all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development and trade".
Behind the diplomatic language lies a threat of cutting development aid and restricting trade with those African countries that do not cooperate before the next migration season starts in the spring.
Apart from the stick, there is also the carrot, which comes in the form of promises of more aid and preferential trade treatment under what Brussels calls migration "compacts".
The new approach - aimed at keeping people away from Europe - was first proposed by Italy, the main disembarkation point for Africa migrants. It is initially aimed at Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Ethiopia and Mali.
The bloc is determined to send back everyone whose life is not under immediate threat at home.
But the new strategy of making aid to third countries conditional on their cooperation on migration is controversial.
Aid agency Oxfam has urged EU leaders to abandon their drive to build a "Fortress Europe" and instead help those in need.
"The need for development aid and Europe's obligation to alleviate poverty should not be about reducing mobility," said Raphael Shilhav, Oxfam's migration policy adviser in Brussels.
"The reasons of displacement should be addressed through understanding the situation on the ground, seeking solutions to the conflicts that are driving displacement of people," he said.
But increasingly EU aid projects in Africa are accompanied by more political pressure on migration.
In an example of the new approach, German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised assistance to Ethiopia just days after Addis Ababa took in 50 people deported from Europe even though it had been reluctant to do that earlier.
In Niger, an EU-funded information point in Agadez, a transit point for migrants crossing the Sahara to board boats for Europe, tries talking people out of continuing on their way by warning about the perils of the journey.
"It is very much about sending a message to would-be migrants. The political impetus is about sending this discouraging message," said Elizabeth Collett, director at the Migration Policy Institute, a Brussels think-tank.
With Afghanistan, whose people make up the second largest group arriving in Europe after Syrians, the EU has leveraged its political and financial support to get a deal on boosting the number of people returned.
The EU also gives aid to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan for hosting about three million Syrian refugees. With Ankara, Brussels struck a broader deal also encompassing visa liberalisation and swifter EU accession talks if Turkey ensures fewer people leave its shores for Greece.
Despite much criticism from rights groups, the deal has cut arrivals in Greek islands to a trickle and Brussels sees it as a success.
But that model is no help for Italy as Libya does not have a stable government capable of controlling the migration route through the central Mediterranean.
That has forced the EU to seek solutions further back along the migration trail, making more aggressive use of its chief foreign policy instruments - money and trade.
"There is something inherently distasteful in this new approach for the EU foreign policy because historically they have always been the good guys," Collett said. "It's the first time they are being asked not to just be the good guys anymore."
(Additional reporting by Steve Scherer in Rome, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Giles Elgood)