The interior ministers of Italy and Germany suggested on Tuesday that the European Union could reach migration swap deals with North African countries similar to the bloc's agreement with Turkey.
While Syrian refugees had not yet shifted their migration route, many migrants from African countries were waiting in Libya to cross the Mediterranean Sea, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said after meeting interior ministers from German-speaking countries in Vienna.
"I could imagine a process with North African states that would be analogous to the procedure we have with Turkey," he told reporters, referring to the deal under which Syrians are being returned from Greece to Turkey while Syrian refugees from Turkey are resettled across the EU.
De Maiziere acknowledged that such an agreement with North African countries "will be much more complicated than with Turkey, and that one is already complicated."
The German interior minister's move followed a similar suggestion mooted earlier by his Italian counterpart Angelino Alfano in an interview with the Financial Times newspaper that the EU should replicate its controversial Turkey migrant returns deal with African nations.
Alfano said stemming migration inflows through more effective return policies was essential. "If returns don't work, the whole Juncker migration agenda will fail," he said, referring to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The minister stressed the difficulty of keeping migrants with pending repatriation orders locked up in camps.
"So how many tens of thousands of people can you keep, year after year? Without returns, either you organize real prisons, or it's obvious that the system will collapse," Alfano said. "It doesn't take a prophet to glimpse the future," he added.
Last year, almost 154,000 sea migrants landed in Italy, and around 15,000 were repatriated on the grounds of bilateral deals with north African nations. Alfano has repeatedly said these deals would be more effective if negotiated by the whole of the EU.
In the Financial Times interview, he also repeated the idea of setting up migrant processing centres "in as many countries as we can along the [migration] route to explain to people that they will be sent back."
Since border controls along the so-called Balkan route from Turkey to Germany have been stepped up, Italy has been concerned that migrant flows will be rerouted towards its shores. In the first three months of 2016, there has been an 85-per-cent year-on-year jump in arrivals.
Most incomers are Africans, but Alfano said Syrians may also start coming in.
"If Syrians don't want to stay in Turkey but want to try the trip to Europe, they will go around and try to get here from Libya," he said. "We still don't have any evidence that this is happening, but we are monitoring," he added.