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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union should expect as many migrants crossing from Libya this year as last, when a record number disembarked in Italy, the head of the bloc's border agency said on Wednesday.
Some 1.6 million refugees and migrants reached the bloc by crossing the Mediterranean in 2014-2016 and the main route now leads from the shores of the lawless Libya to Italy.
"There was an increase by 17 percent last year so we had approximately 181,000 irregular border crossings coming from Libya... We have to be ready to face the same number," Fabrice Leggeri, the head of the EU's border agency Frontex told reporters.
"In 2016, 2015 and 2014, we had more than 150,000 thousand irregular migrants coming from Libya, he said, using the term favoured by the EU to mean those entering illegally.
The bloc, overwhelmed by the arrivals and waging bitter internal battles on how to share the burden, has increased its efforts to cut the number of people who use smugglers' boats to make the perilous voyage.
This includes support for the U.N.-backed Libyan government in Tripoli, efforts to boost deportations of people with no case for asylum, and working with African states along the migration trails to ensure they let fewer people pass.
But these would only bear fruit in the medium- to long-term, Leggeri said, adding that for now the EU had to ensure Italy has enough support and capacity to handle high arrivals.
"I hope 2017 will see the start of a shift, a positive impact of alternative measures... But these are measures that need time," he said.
The EU says some 70 percent of people coming via Libya from the impoverished Africa are not fleeing violent conflicts or oppressive regimes and hence are unlikely to win asylum. They are qualified as economic migrants and the EU wants to deport them.
Frontex said the whole bloc deported some 176,000 people last year, roughly in line with 2015. But a majority of these returns are actually of nationals from the non-EU states in the Western Balkans.
The more complicated deportations to the Middle East are often held up by asylum procedures, which must ensure the right to appeal.
That is the case for Syrians and other potential refugees who arrived in masses to Greece from Turkey in 2015, an influx that has now largely stopped after Brussels sealed a deal with Turkey under which Ankara prevents them from leaving its shores.
While confirmed refugees should not be sent back, for the African migrants the obstacles delaying larger-scale deportations include problems with identification and obtaining travel documents, as well as the reluctance of some African governments to take back their people.
The EU has been increasingly working on that with Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Niger and Ethiopia.
Editing by Jeremy Gaunt