BY LORNE COOK
VALLETTA, MALTA (AP) — Tens of thousands of people seeking better lives are expected to trek across deserts and board unseaworthy boats in war-torn Libya this year in a desperate effort to reach European shores by way of Italy.
More than 181,000 people, most so-called "economic migrants" with little chance of being allowed to stay in Europe, attempted to cross the central Mediterranean last year from Libya, Africa's nearest stretch of coast to Italy. About 4,500 died or disappeared.
Hundreds already have taken to the sea this month, braving the winter weather. In the latest reminder of the journey's perils, more than 100 people were missing off Libya's coast over the weekend after a migrant boat sunk.
Some European leaders are warning of a fresh migration crisis when sea waters warm again and more people choose to put their lives in the hands of smugglers.
"Come next spring, the number of people crossing over the Mediterranean will reach record levels," Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, whose country holds the European Union's presidency, predicted. "The choice is trying to do something now, or meeting urgently in April, May...and try to do a deal then."
The 28-nation EU already has a controversial deal to stem the flow of migrants from Turkey, which has agreed to try to stop the number of migrants leaving the country and to take back thousands more. In exchange, Turkey is supposed to receive billions of euros, visa-free travel for its citizens, and fast-tracked EU membership talks.
Now, the EU wants to adapt this outsourcing pact to the African nations that migrants are leaving or are jumping off from to reach Europe, despite criticism that the agreement sends asylum-seekers back to countries that could be unsafe for them.
The bottom line is that the Turkey deal works. The number of people arriving in the Greek islands, for instance, plunged over the last year despite political wrangling over whether Turkey's government was meeting the conditions for securing the visa-free travel incentive.
And EU nations have even fewer scruples about turning away migrants who take the central Mediterranean route to Italy since they mostly are job seekers who would be ineligible for asylum.
Niger, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Mali and Chad are all on the EU's radar, and dealing with them is proving expensive. But the bloc's arrangement with Turkey has shown that the best way of stemming migrant flows is to stop people taking to the sea. Libya and Egypt are the main migrant departure points, and pacts with them would probably have the biggest immediate impact.
Muscat wants to build on a deal Italy is trying to reach with Libya by adding EU funds and other support. He also thinks the EU's anti-smuggler naval mission, Operation Sophia, should be extended into Libyan territorial waters to stop people in unsafe boats from reaching open water.
Easier said than done. The EU has been unable to secure United Nations backing for such a move, and Libya has no central authority with the reach or stability to negotiate a long-term agreement with the Europeans.
"The reality of Libya right now is that there is no unified government controlling all parts of the country, and no end of groups willing to upend things if there is an advantage in it for them," Carlo Binda, a Libya expert with Malta-based political and development advisers Binda Consulting International.
Libya's neighbor Egypt appears a more viable option. Many people have set out for Europe from Egypt in recent months, mainly migrants from the Horn of Africa trying to avoid dangerous Libya and increasingly Egyptians themselves, according to the EU's border agency Frontex.
Despite some instability, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a former general who led the 2013 military removal of an elected Islamist president, is a man with whom the Europeans feel they can do business. Sissi also wields plenty of influence in Libya.
Egypt's economy has been battered by unrest since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. If there is one thing the world's biggest trading bloc does well, it is raise funds to pay for its problems.
"Egypt is the country with which one could come to some sort of agreement," Maltese Foreign Minister George Vella said. "There is stability to a certain extent, and they are interested because even they themselves have got their own problem with migration."
Time is of the essence. The EU has for several years tried to cobble together migration polices while people died at sea.
The refugee emergency — Europe's worst since World War II — also has raised tensions among EU member countries. Some countries have erected anti-migrant fences or reintroduced border controls amid deep disagreement over how to manage the challenge.
"Things are getting complicated. I would rather face the music now," Muscat said.