By Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to provide "stronger support" to Italy for its work in Libya and replenish their Africa fund to further curb immigration to Europe.
"We have a real chance of closing the Central Mediterranean route," chairman Donald Tusk said after 28 EU leaders meeting in Brussels discussed migration, stressing the need to lower the number of arrivals from Africa going through the Mediterranean to Italy.
EU executive European Commission told the group they needed to immediately chip in an extra 225 million euros for migration-related projects in Africa due to run this year and early next.
"If we do want to be as present as possible in Africa - mainly in the Northern part of Africa - we have to increase financial means," Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said.
Brussels has so far committed 2.9 billion euros to the so-called Africa Trust Fund, with another 234 million euros from EU states, according to the Commission.
Brussels said 1.6 billion euros would be spent by the end of 2017 on Turkey. In 2016 the bloc promised 3 billion euros for Syrian refugees in exchange for Ankara shutting down the route traffickers and smugglers were using to get people to Greece.
Despite sour EU-Turkey relations on several issues, German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised Ankara for hosting refugees from Syria and said the bloc should pull together another 3 billion euros to that end.
"We have promised 3 billion euros for the coming years in addition to the 3 billion that we have already committed. We need to deliver on this promise," Merkel told reporters on arriving for the two-day EU leaders' summit in Brussels.
"This money helps the refugees who are living under very difficult conditions. Once again, Turkey is doing a great job here," she said.
Since 2015, the bloc has helped Greece, Italy and Bulgaria with nearly 2 billion euros to manage immigration flows. It spent another 100 million euros on controlling migratory routes in the Western Balkans, according to figures provided by the bloc.
It has been spending on more deportations and financing United Nations projects for refugees and migrants in Africa, and mulling a centre in Libya to assess asylum requests there.
Despite criticism from rights groups that the EU is violating international humanitarian law by striving to curb immigration, the bloc has applauded itself for reducing arrivals by more than 70 percent in 2016 from the peak in 2015 when more than a million people entered in an uncontrolled flow.
The influx of immigrants in 2015 caught the bloc by surprise, alarmed the EU's 500 million people and fuelled support for anti-immigration, populist and nationalist groups.
The bloc's asylum system broke down under the sheer numbers and the cherished Schengen zone of control-free travel was strained as member states introduced emergency border checks.
EU states have since sought to agree on how to change their asylum laws, with bitter disputes deepening east-west divides.
Tusk said on Thursday the 28 EU leaders would discuss the issue again in December and were aiming for an agreement by mid-2018.
Earlier this week, the European Parliament agreed its own stance on asylum reform, including an option to cut EU funds to states that refuse to host asylum-seekers reaching the bloc.
It proposed moving away from the current rule mandating that the first country through which a person enters the EU must handle his or her asylum request, saying it puts too much burden on frontline states like Italy, Greece, Malta or Spain.
Southern frontline states want a scheme that would automatically lift people off their soil during periods of exceptionally high immigration and take them elsewhere in the EU.
Westerners like Germany and Sweden, which eventually receive most of the refugees, have said more of the burden must be shared and that solidarity was needed.
Eastern EU countries like Poland and Hungary have refused to admit anyone, saying doing so could compromise national security and affect the traditional composition of their populations.
(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska; Additional reporting by Lily Cusack; Editing by Toni Reinhold)