MDINA (MALTA) - The leaders of nine Mediterranean and southern European countries called Friday for a "significant increase" in the EU's efforts to tackle the thorny issue of migration at its roots, in origin and transit countries.
Italian far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said that front-line countries were struggling to deal with arrivals now, but without "structural" solutions from the bloc, "everyone will be overwhelmed".
A sharp rise in migrants landing on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa earlier this month has reignited tensions within the bloc and provided impetus to work for a fresh common strategy.
French President Emmanuel Macron called for "a united European response", urging "solidarity with Italy, as we must show solidarity with all the countries of first entry".
The so-called "Med 9" met in Malta the day after EU interior ministers in Brussels finally made headway on new rules for how the bloc handles asylum seekers and illegal immigration.
The revamped Pact on Migration and Asylum will seek to relieve pressure on frontline countries by relocating some arrivals to other EU states and the leaders in Malta urged its swift adoption.
But Meloni, whose hard-right government was elected a year ago on an anti-migrant ticket, said the redistribution of arriving migrants was not enough -- a message reiterated in the summit's joint statement.
Tackling illegal migration calls for "a sustained and holistic European response", the leaders of Croatia, Cyprus, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Slovenia and a representative of Spain said.
"We recall the need for a significant increase in the EU's efforts on the external dimension front, with a renewed approach to effectively reduce primary movements and prevent departures," it said.
"Ultimately", Malta's Prime Minister Robert Abela said, "the issue needs to be tackled at source".
- Naval missions -
After a meeting with Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Malta, Meloni told media she saw "a will, on paper at least," to act as a bloc.
It is "something that has to be done on a European level to be really effective," she insisted.
So far this year, the number of arrivals in Italy has surpassed 133,000, almost double the number during the same period last year, official data shows.
As thousands of migrants slept on cots in the open in Lampedusa's overwhelmed reception centre two weeks ago, von der Leyen unveiled a 10-point plan to help Rome deal with the crisis.
Von der Leyen's plan includes the possible expansion of naval missions in the Mediterranean -- missions Meloni said should be run "in agreement with North African authorities".
The European Commission said last week it was set to release the first instalment of funds to Tunisia -- one of the main launching points for boats -- under a plan signed this year to bolster its coastguard and tackle traffickers.
The EU deal with Tunisia is already producing "very important signs of collaboration", Meloni said, adding that it provides "a model to be used in general with North African countries".
- Deaths at sea -
The bloc already signed a deal in 2017 with Libya, although critics say getting both countries to intercept and forcibly return boats makes the EU complicit in abuses.
Rescue charity Sea Watch said Friday its surveillance plane Seabird had witnessed a Libyan coastguard boat -- a vessel donated by Italy -- ramming a migrant dinghy carrying some 50 people.
The charity said it was not clear whether any of the migrants had drowned in the "violent" incident.
At least 990 migrants died or went missing in the crossing between June and August this year, three times the number recorded in the same period last year, the UN's agency for children UNICEF said Friday.
At least 289 children have died so far this year trying to make the crossing, with UNICEF warning the Mediterranean had become a "cemetery for children and their future".
Rome has criticised Germany for funding charity rescue ships operating in the Central Mediterranean, the world's deadliest sea crossing for migrants.
Italy has suggested charity ships sailing under foreign flags should be forced under EU rules to disembark them in their own countries, Meloni said Friday.
But according to Italian media reports, that amendment was rejected by interior ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday.
The leaders in Malta also urged "immediate action" on the climate crisis, following a devastating earthquake in Morocco, flood disaster in Libya, and extreme weather events in Southern Europe.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called for "much more emphasis on adaptation, disaster relief and managing the very costly aftermath".