VALLETTA, Malta — European Union leaders insisted on Friday their strategy to stem a relentless flow of smuggled migrants from Libya toward the continent will save lives, even as U.N. and refugee advocates decried horrible camp conditions in the largely lawless north African country.
Buoyed by an Italian-Libyan deal reached in Rome on the eve of Friday's EU summit in Malta, the leaders of the 28 EU nations forged a plan that would both stop more migrants from crossing into Libya's southern desert and thwart the smugglers from continuing to send migrants from the poorly patrolled Mediterranean coast toward Europe.
Hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers, most of them economic migrants ineligible to remain in Europe, have reached Italy in the last few years after rescue at sea from floundering boats, but thousands have also drowned or died aboard over-packed and often unseaworthy vessels.
EU leaders want to close down that route across the central Mediterranean through naval and economic assistance to the beleaguered government in Libya.
Under the plan approved Friday, the EU will provide an additional 200 million euros ($215 million) for migration-related projects in Libya.
EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini told reporters the aim of Europe is to "decrease loss of life at sea and in the desert" of southern Libya along smugglers' routes.
Advocates for refugees cite inhumane conditions in Libyan detention camps where the migrants are kept after entering Libya illegally and while waiting months for their turn in smugglers' boats.
Doctors Without Borders general director Arjan Hehenkamp said in a statement that the EU nations "need a reality check" and called the camps "dangerously overcrowded."
Mogherini said the EU strategy would ensure "full respect for human rights" while aiming to stop the central Mediterranean route "on which still too many people are dying."
The summit also yielded strong support support to Italy, which has coordinated the rescue of hundreds of thousands of migrants at sea in the last few years.
Political pressures have been mounting in countries like Italy and Germany, which have been welcoming the rescued migrants, to take action to assure citizens that arrivals will be contained.
One strategy could be some kind of joint patrols by EU or NATO vessels with Libya's fleet just off shore if Tripoli allows outsiders into its territorial waters.
Italian Premier Paolo Gentiloni has said the Libyan-Italian deal calls for EU economic assistance to improve Libyan lives. Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj's Tripoli-based government controls only a part of the country, which plunged into fighting and chaos after longtime strongman Moammar Gadhafi's demise in 2011.
Gentiloni called Italy's accord with Libya a "new chapter" in attempts to manage the migrant flow, saying Rome expected resources and commitment from the EU to make it work.
Serraj was in Brussels during the Malta summit trying to lock in EU support he can use to bolster his beleaguered position at home.