EU leaders called Thursday for greater efforts to apply the "leverage" of trade and development with Africa in order to curb migrant departures to Europe and speed up the return of those who arrive.
The European Union has been turning its sights on the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy since a March aid-for-cooperation deal with Turkey dramatically slowed the number of migrants landing in Greece, the main entry point for Europe last year.
Adopting a statement at their Brussels summit, the leaders urged EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini to present a report at the next summit in December on how much progress has been made with five African countries toward reducing migrant arrivals and increasing returns.
The EU wants so-called "compacts" with those African countries — Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal — ready for the spring, when the weather improves and migrants are likely to head en masse again to Europe on rickety boats.
"More efforts are needed to reduce the number of irregular migrants, in particular from Africa, and to improve return rates," the final statement said.
The statement says EU countries aim to "apply the necessary leverage, by using all relevant EU policies, instruments and tools, including development and trade" in order to reduce migration flows and return migrants.
Under international law, EU countries must admit genuine refugees fleeing war and persecution, as in Syria and Afghanistan, but can block or send back migrants deemed job seekers, who Brussels say account for most of the African migrants.
EU officials have for months discussed a proposal to promote private investment in countries where many migrants come from in order to encourage them to stay home.
Unlike Turkey, it is difficult for EU countries to work with still lawless Libya to curb the migrant flow and possibly easier to try to ease poverty in Africa.
More than one million people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and Africa flooded into Europe last year, sowing divisions across the 28-nation bloc and fuelling the rise of far-right parties.
Some 145,000 migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of 2016, almost the same number for the whole of last year.
In the run-up to the summit, the activist group Oxfam denounced the EU approach to migrants as building a "Fortress Europe" that forces them to take dangerous routes into the wealthy bloc.
"As well as closing borders and outsourcing border control to neighbouring regions, the EU is now refocusing its foreign and development policies around the primary aim of curbing migration, of stopping people on their way to Europe and sending them back to where they come from," it said.
Development aid should be "used for reducing poverty and inequality, not for reducing mobility," it added.