Paris - The leaders of France, Germany, Spain and Italy have agreed on a proposal to identify, interview and approve asylum seekers in the Central African countries of Niger and Chad.
The proposal, which the leaders said could eventually involve other countries in Africa's Sahel region, is meant to help combat "irregular economic immigration networks" and promote voluntary returns of irregular migrants to their countries of origin.
Stemming the flow of migrants from North Africa to Europe was the main objective of a summit hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris where the leaders agreed to the plan.
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou and Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno were received by Macron earlier in the day.
The trio was later joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, and the head of Libya's weak UN-backed unity government, Fayez Serraj.
According to the proposal, the UNHCR would identify individuals "who could be eligible for resettlement" in Europe. The next step would be an interview and security assessment and, "for selected candidates, resettlement to a European country in liaison with the IOM (International Organization for Migration) and UNHCR and with EU financial support."
Germany's Merkel, who is coming up for re-election on September 24, said the relief efforts of the UNHCR in Libya would be more strongly supported "so that people who are today held under the most undignified conditions by militias in Libya have a humanitarian acceptible future."
The chancellor also said that, in principle, it is possible to relocate the refugees from Libya in Europe, but that the UNHCR must decide which individuals are most in need.
"It can only work if we make a clear distinction for those who set out for Libya on economic grounds in order to come to Europe," Merkel said.
According to Merkel, the feasibility of this kind of acceptance of migrants is coupled with the end of irregular migration and trafficking. "Otherwise we would be setting the wrong example," she said.
Support efforts by Niger
Chad and Niger, two countries that border conflict-wracked Libya to the south, have both played a part in European efforts to reduce the number of people crossing the Mediterranean towards Italy.
Italy has already stepped up efforts fight human smugglers in Libya with a naval mission assisting the Libyan coastguard, despite criticisms from rights groups.
With rival Libyan governments unable to control the southern border, the EU has also sought to support efforts by Niger and other neighbours to police the borders on their side.
Last year, Italy replaced Greece as the main destination for Europe-bound sea migrants. About 98,000 migrants have landed on its shores since the beginning of the year, in a 7-per-cent decrease from the same period of 2016.
The causes for this decrease are unclear.