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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union needs to reach a deal on curbing the flow of migrants trying to sail on smugglers' boats from Libya to Italy, the prime minister of Malta, holder of the EU's rotating presidency, said on Wednesday.
Joseph Muscat said the new measures should have the same impact as an agreement struck with Turkey last year that cut the number of migrants and refugees reaching Europe from Turkish shores to below 390,000 from well over a million in 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The treacherous voyage from North Africa to Italy is now the favored route. The IOM says more than 5,000 people died or went missing while crossing the Mediterranean last year, and at least 219 drowned in the first two weeks of this year alone.
"There is no doubt that unless the essence of the Turkey deal is replicated in the central Mediterranean, Europe will face a major migration crisis," Muscat told European lawmakers.
As current EU president, Malta will host a top-level meeting of the bloc's leaders - including British Prime Minister Theresa May - on Feb. 3 to agree a plan for averting a spring influx of people embarking from Libya.
Muscat, whose tiny island nation lies between Italy and Libya, said the priority was "breaking the business model of the criminal gangs making millions of euros out of this inhumane business".
Replicating the exact Turkish deal is impossible with Libya, where lawlessness has reigned since the country's long-standing, strongman leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled and killed in 2011. This has allowed people smugglers to operate with impunity.
While Libya now has a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli, it is weak and does not control its territory.
But diplomats in Brussels said migrants could be screened before leaving Libya, in camps run with EU funding by the IOM or the United Nations refugee agency. Muscat said the EU could then give safe passage for recognized asylum seekers.
Another key difference between Libya and Turkey is that those who risk the much shorter journey to the Greek islands in the Aegean are mostly Syrians who are fleeing a war and hence have strong chances for asylum in Europe.
For the Libya-Italy route, it is mostly economic migrants from impoverished sub-Saharan Africa who seek to get to much-wealthier Europe. Since they are not fleeing an immediate threat to their lives, EU states are not willing to take them in.
The EU's naval mission in the Mediterranean is already training the Libyan coastguard - something the bloc's leaders agreed to step up last December - and targeting traffickers.
A Maltese document, seen by Reuters before it is discussed by EU envoys in Brussels on Thursday, proposes moving the mission closer to the shore and into Libyan territorial waters.
The EU failed to agree on that last year and, as an alternative, the paper proposes a "line of protection" much closer to the ports of origin. Libyan forces would take the lead, but with "strong and lasting EU support".
The proposal highlights the need to engage more with Libya's neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, including possibly on shutting supply routes carrying rubber boats or engines for smugglers.
EU diplomats say, however, that Cairo has so far put a high price tag on any additional help, after Turkey was promised up to 6 billion euros ($6.4 billion) under its 2016 migration deal with the bloc.
But the EU is determined to stop the arrivals from Libya and the bloc's foreign ministers are expected to invite Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to their next meeting in Brussels on Feb. 6 to discuss the matter.
The Maltese also propose increasing EU assistance in returning migrants from Libya to their home countries, beefing up the IOM camp in Agadez - a key transit point in Niger - and possibly setting up a similar one in Mali.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gareth Jones