Reuters International

Migrants disembark from a vessel of ONG Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) in the Sicilian harbour of Augusta, Italy, June 24, 2016. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello/File Photo

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By Matthias Blamont and Chine Labbé

PARIS (Reuters) - The flow of refugees and migrants to Europe has slowed since April when the European Union sealed a deal with Turkey to halt illegal traffic across the Aegean Sea, the region's border agency chief said on Tuesday.

Since then, Italy has replaced Greece as the migration "front line", with hundreds crossing the Mediterranean from Libya every day, Fabrice Leggeri, head of Frontex, the agency in charge of protecting the EU's external borders, said.

"For the first six months of 2016, there were 360,000 illegal entries in the EU, which is higher than what we saw last year, but the influx has been diminishing since April," Leggeri told France's Europe 1 radio.

In 2015, Frontex recorded more than 1.5 million irregular crossings into Europe, mostly by people entering Greece before heading north to Germany and Sweden, fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.

Leggeri said the "new front line" was now Italy where about 750 people, mostly from sub-Saharan and Western Africa, arrived each day compared with about 50 in Greece.

A Frontex spokesman said the EU-Turkey deal, under which Ankara agreed to halt illegal migration in return for financial and political rewards, and the closure of the Greece-Macedonia border earlier this year, were the two main reasons behind the declining figures.

Malta-based charity Migrant Offshore Aid Station said one of its rescue ships had recovered the bodies of four migrants and rescued around 400 people on Tuesday from an overcrowded wooden boat en route to Italy from Libya.

Frontex, which will soon be renamed the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is increasing staff numbers and funding to boost controls at EU frontiers.

Border protection will remain a national responsibility and the agency will continue to rely on EU capitals for contributions to a proposed pool of 1,500 border guards ready for quick deployment to crisis spots.

Inspired by the "stress tests" carried out annually by the European Banking Authority to assess the stability of the EU's financial system, Leggeri said his organisation wanted to conduct checks to ensure states implemented efficient border policies.

"We are currently looking for volunteering countries to establish a methodology," he told reporters.

Responding to concerns that some migrants have suffered human rights abuses, Leggeri said the new-look agency would provide a way - probably an online form - to report wrongdoings, and would carry out investigations where possible.

(Editing by John Irish and Robin Pomeroy)

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