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Migrants stand at a naval base after they were rescued by the Libyan coastguard, in Tripoli, Libya October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny

(reuters_tickers)

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders will promise during talks in Brussels "sufficient and targeted funding" for migration projects in Africa and elsewhere, according to a draft statement that shows they have yet to put their money where their mouth is.

The EU has spent billions of euros in recent years on keeping a lid on immigration from the Middle East and Africa after a 2015 peak in arrivals overwhelmed the bloc and fuelled support for populist, right-wing and anti-immigration groups.

In 2016, the EU promised Turkey at least 3 billion euros over two years for the Syrian refugees it hosts in exchange for Ankara cutting off the migratory route to Greece. It has so far contracted to pay nearly 1.7 billion of that and disbursed 900 million.

The bloc has been giving money to Greece and Italy, the main EU countries of arrival for refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean, spending on tightening external borders, as well as financing more deportations from Europe and providing training and equipment to the Libyan border and coast guard.

Italy has led EU's efforts on the lawless Libya, where the bloc is also funding U.N. programmes to send people back home further south in Africa - so that they do not try to cross to Europe - and improve the miserable conditions in camps where migrants are often stuck.

The bloc decided to sponsor many other projects in Africa, including in Niger, to promote growth and slow emigration.

But EU governments have been slow to chip in to the so-called Africa Trust Fund, with one senior EU diplomat saying on Wednesday the shortfall is in the "high tens of millions" of euros.

"If the situation is not fixed quickly, we might find ourselves in a position that we cannot carry out our policies," the diplomat said.

Some EU states have been hesitant to pay, saying not all projects proposed under the Africa scheme were clearly tied to keeping a lid on migration to Europe, or complaining about funds going to waste because of mismanagement or corruption.

"You need to know what that money will be spent on and that has not been entirely clear so far. You need to know who will benefit from this money," another senior EU diplomat said.

An EU official summed up the atmosphere around the table by saying: "There is no trust in the Africa Trust Fund."

Asked what does the EU - which will hold a high-profile summit with African partners in Abidjan on Nov.28-29 - need to solve this headache, the person added: "A big pot of money."

INTERNAL EU BATTLES

Beyond discussing financing to keep immigration to the bloc under control, EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday will praise Italy for its efforts in Libya

The EU has faced heavy criticism from rights groups that the bloc is turning into a fortress, deprives refugees and migrants of their rights and exposes them to even more suffering. Brussels says investing in Africa could help prevent migrants from seeking to trek north and risk their lives in deadly crossings through the Sahara and the Mediterranean.

After more than a million people crossed the sea in 2015, the number stood at 363,000 in 2016 and is below 160,000 so far this year, according to data from the United Nations and EU border agency Frontex.

Frontex said on Wednesday the 156,000 arrivals this year via all four main routes - leading to Greece, Italy, Spain and south-east EU states - mark a two-third fall from a year ago.

With emotions surrounding migration having subsided somewhat from the 2015 peak, EU leaders will also touch on how to handle those asylum-seekers who make it onto European shores, an issue that has divided them for two years now.

Frontline southern states and wealthy countries that receive most asylum seekers have sought to require other countries to take more in; eastern EU members have refused.

Estonia, currently the bloc's rotating chairman, will make anther proposal at squaring the circle days after the summit.

"The positions have not changed much but there is a slight shift maybe for a broad agreement," another senior EU diplomat said.

Sources said the proposal to reform the bloc's asylum rules will still include some version of an obligatory or automated relocation scheme for times of high arrivals. That has long been opposed by Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, and may be too watered down to win backing from Greece or Italy.

(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott, Alissa de Carbonnel, Lily Cusack, Alastair Macdonald; editing by Peter Graff)

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