BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union must do more to help protect migrants stranded in Libya and to convince its member states to share the burden of caring for refugees who reach Europe, a senior official at the International Organisation for Migration said.
Eugenio Ambrosi, EU director at the IOM, the United Nations' migration body, was speaking before a summit of EU leaders next week that is due to discuss efforts to stop African migrants from traveling to Europe from Libya and to seek a way out of their stalemate over the hosting of asylum seekers.
"There is an effort, and that should be increased, to ensure and improve the level of protection of the migrants that are currently in Libya," Ambrosi told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday.
The Libya-Italy route is now the one most heavily used by people trying to reach Europe. The United Nations says more than 1,850 have perished in the Mediterranean this year trying to make the crossing.
Ambrosi put the total number of migrants currently in Libya at 800,000. He said the IOM had flown 4,600 migrants home from Libya so far this year and aims to increase that to 12,000.
The migrants being returned, mostly to sub-Saharan Africa, have often been staying in camps run by the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli. EU officials compare conditions in them to war-time camps.
Ambrosi, who is in charge of channeling EU money to help migrants in Libya - a strategy the bloc hopes would discourage them from trying to cross the sea - said he expected arrivals in Italy this year slightly above the 181,000 who came in 2016.
"Italy still has the possibility of receiving the number of migrants they are receiving, but unless this responsibility-sharing kicks in efficiently, they will soon reach a saturation point," he said.
Some 1.7 million refugees and migrants have arrived in the EU across the Mediterranean since 2014. That figure pales in comparison with the EU's population of half a billion people but the influx caught the bloc by surprise and triggered internal battles among member states.
"For me the crisis is not the numbers that arrive. The crisis is the inability to properly respect and implement that (solidarity) principle," Ambrosi said, adding his voice to calls for a fairer burden sharing among EU member states.
The EU's executive has opened legal cases against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for refusing to take in people to help frontline peers Italy and Greece. The easterners cite security concerns.
"At a certain point the majority of EU countries will have to take a bold decision on the issue of solidarity because that's the key to why we Europeans got together, no? Otherwise, why are we here?" said Ambrosi, an Italian national.
His comments are likely to annoy some former communist states in eastern Europe. Nationalist-minded governments, especially in Poland and Hungary, have vowed not to yield to Brussels and western EU states that espouse more liberal views.
The spat over migration precipitated a broader clash over basic values in the EU.
Some say the easterners should see their generous EU handouts cut in retribution. Others warn that would only deepen divides and fuel euroscepticism, which already triggered Brexit.
In Libya, the weakness of the Tripoli government means militias and other groups control much of the country, greatly complicating efforts to help the migrants, but the EU has nevertheless engaged with Tripoli, training its coast guard and offering other support.
The EU has been criticized by rights groups for trying to keep people in places where their lives are at peril.
EU officials privately also fret at dealing with institutions in Libya they see as often closely intertwined with armed groups, criminal gangs and people smugglers.
"(But) I would ask what would be the alternative," Ambrosi said. "Unless somebody convinces me that there is a viable alternative that can achieve the same or more, I don't see what else can be done."
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Gareth Jones