BRUSSELS - The European Union should expect as many migrants crossing from Libya this year as last, when a record number disembarked in Italy, the head of the bloc's border agency said on Wednesday.
Some 1.6 million refugees and migrants reached the bloc by crossing the Mediterranean in 2014-2016 and the main route now leads from the shores of the lawless Libya to Italy.
"There was an increase by 17 percent last year so we had approximately 181,000 irregular border crossings coming from Libya... We have to be ready to face the same number," Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency Frontex told reporters.
"In 2016, 2015 and 2014, we had more than 150,000 thousand irregular migrants coming from Libya, he said, using the term favored by the EU to mean those entering illegally.
The bloc, overwhelmed by the arrivals and waging bitter internal battles on how to share the burden, has increased its efforts to cut the number of people who use smugglers' boats to make the perilous voyage.
This includes support for the UN-backed Libyan government in Tripoli, efforts to boost deportations of people with no case for asylum, and working with African states along the migration trails to ensure they let fewer people pass.
But these would only bear fruit in the medium-to long-term, Leggeri said, adding that for now the EU had to ensure Italy has enough support and capacity to handle high arrivals.
"I hope 2017 will see the start of a shift, a positive impact of alternative measures... But these are measures that need time," he said