European Union foreign ministers will on Monday consider helping set up camps in the Middle East and Africa where people can request asylum on site without having to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe, officials said.
At least 3,500 people, many of them fleeing poverty and fighting, died trying to make the journey in 2014, according to the United Nations. Data suggest the number trying to reach the most common destination, Italy, is rising sharply.
The Italian coast guard said on Friday it had coordinated the rescue of 153 migrants who were being taken to Sicily aboard a Danish merchant ship after their rafts ran into trouble around 30 miles from the coast of Libya.
"The idea is to establish camps in Africa, on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, that would deal with the requests of asylum seekers," Italian Home Affairs Minister Angelino Alfano told reporters in Brussels.
"Requests for asylum should be made there, and the refugees who are accepted should be shared equally among EU countries," Alfano said. "This would deprive human traffickers of an important share of their market."
The number of often rickety boats reaching Italy jumped 43 percent in the first two months of the year to 7,882 compared to a year earlier, according to the Italian Interior Ministry.
The EU's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and the EU commissioner in charge of home affairs have sent EU foreign ministers a letter proposing the bloc should start talking to African and Middle Eastern governments to build "local capacity for migration governance."
The letter, seen by Reuters, also suggests stepping up EU assistance to African and Middle East countries so that they can give better protection to refugees and asylum seekers and "provide safe alternatives to dangerous onward journeys."
Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are indicated in the letter as the first countries that the EU assistance should focus on.