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FILE PHOTO: An overcrowded raft drifts out of control in the central Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Libya. January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union should step up funding for the United Nation's migration agency to return migrants stranded in Libya to their home countries further south in Africa, the bloc's current president says.
The proposal by Malta, a frontline state for migrants, was presented to the other 27 members of the bloc earlier in February, and seen by Reuters on Tuesday.
Some 1.6 million refugees and migrants reached Europe via the Mediterranean in 2014-2016. Italy, as well as Malta, bears much of the immediate burden of dealing with African migrants who leave the lawless Libya on unfit boats.
Malta's proposal comes ahead of a summit of the bloc's 28 national leaders next week who will look at putting into practice agreements on new steps to stem African immigration.
The U.N.'s International Organization for Migration (IOM)estimates there are between 700,000 and one million migrants in Libya. It aims to help 7,000 people stranded there go back home this year, more than doubling its return programme from 2016.
The EU has already promised more funding to that end last December. But the Maltese plan calls for "significant increase in the number of migrants accepting voluntary returns to their country of origin beyond the current target of 5,000."
Earlier this month at a meeting in Malta, the bloc promised support to the U.N.-backed government in Libya to help bring about stability, as well as to curb migration from the coast.
If the strategy succeeds and their exit towards Europe becomes more difficult, the struggling government in Tripoli fears a growing migrant buildup in Libya and has asked the bloc to beef up Libya's southern border and help return people.
Charter planes taking off from Tripoli under the IOM programme have already sent back 589 migrants so far this year, mainly to Senegal and Nigeria. For the most vulnerable ones, it offers additional help to let them get started back at home.
CAMPS IN LIBYA
The IOM says about half of the migrants it helped move back last year were held in Libya's detention centres. Some others were rescued at sea while attempting the perilous journey, which killed more than 4,500 people last year.
The U.N. agency UNICEF says about 16 percent of those who risked the voyage in 2016 were children.
Security remains the paramount challenge in Libya which descended into chaos following the 2011 overthrow of the veteran ruler Muammar Gaddafi.
This has allowed people smugglers to operate with impunity as the internationally-recognised Tripoli government is challenged by powerful warlord Khalifa Haftar in the east.
The IOM hopes to reach more people this year in the south and east of Libya. It is also working in migrant detention centres officially declared by Tripoli, which the EU has committed to help upgrade.
The U.N. said last December that migrants held there suffer widespread abuse, including arbitrary detention, forced labour, rape and torture.
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)