Reuters International

Migrants wait to disembark from Italian Coast Guard patrol vessel Diciotti in the Sicilian harbour of Catania, Italy, January 28, 2017. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello

(reuters_tickers)

By Steve Scherer

ROME (Reuters) - Italy set up a fund to help African countries better seal their borders in a bid to keep migrants from boarding flimsy and often deadly rubber boats bound for Europe, the foreign minister said on Wednesday.

Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano's announcement of the 200-million-euro ($216 million) fund comes two days before European Union leaders meet in Malta to discuss their plan to stop African immigrants from arriving in Europe.

A record 181,000 migrants reached Italy over the Mediterranean last year, most of them leaving from Libya where people smugglers operate with impunity. More than 5,000 are believed to have died attempting the crossing in 2016, aid agencies estimate.

"The strategic objective is to help (African countries) control their external borders and to stop departures," Alfano told reporters in Rome. African countries can request training and equipment to beef up border controls.

At the moment, Libya, Tunisia and Niger are the three "strategic" partners for the fund, Alfano said, but Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and Ethiopia could be future partners.

Italy has repeatedly criticised the EU response to the migration crisis, in particular the failure to agree between EU states over how to share out those refugees and migrants who make it into the bloc.

All 28 EU states agree, however, on the need to prevent them from coming in the first place and are increasingly offering money and other assistance to countries in the Middle East and North Africa to that end.

The bloc's executive European Commission last week proposed mobilising a further 200 million euros for projects such as training and equipping the Libyan coast guard and boosting voluntary returns.

European leaders will give such plans a political push on Friday during a meeting in Malta. The bloc is looking at financing camps on the southern shores of the Mediterranean sea to house refugees and migrants.

"We haven't talked about setting up camps in Tunisia or elsewhere," Alfano said, saying it would be premature to do so in Libya because of the lack of security. "We're trying to work so that there will be no need for camps."

The security situation in Libya is extremely poor since the overthrow of the country's strongman leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. State structures have collapsed and a new, U.N.-backed government in Tripoli does not control its territory.

Militias and people smugglers control the migration routes and the United Nations sounded alarm last year that migrants in Libya suffer consistent and widespread abuse, including arbitrary detention, forced labour, rape and torture. ($1 = 0.9264 euros)

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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