LUXEMBOURG - EU ministers pushed Thursday to speed up the deportation of failed asylum seekers in a bid to curb Europe's migration crisis, ahead of key talks with officials from the Balkans and nations bordering Syria.
In a sign of a tougher approach to the worst migration crisis since World War II, European interior ministers want a dedicated programme to send back "economic" migrants who are largely from African nations.
The European Union's focus in recent months has been more on genuine refugees fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan as it grapples with a wave of more than 600,000 illegal entrants to the bloc.
"We need to crack down on people abusing our asylum system," British Home Secretary Theresa May said as she arrived at the talks in Luxembourg.
The meeting comes a day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande both called for an overhaul of the EU's asylum system, as they made a rare joint speech to the European Parliament.
Merkel said the current Dublin regulations - which put the burden on Mediterranean states like Greece and Italy by saying asylum applications must be handled by the first state in which a migrant lands - were "obsolete."
However Austrian Chancellor Werner Fayman said planned EU "hotspots" on Europe's outer borders to better deal with the influx of thousands of migrants are far from ready, after he visited one such site in Greece.
"In terms of timing and organisation, nothing has been thought through," Werner Faymann told Austrian public radio in an interview. "A lot more has to happen... There are gaps everywhere."
On Thursday, the ministers from the 28 EU nations are debating draft proposals to increase the ability of member states to speed up both voluntary and forced returns of failed asylum seekers in co-operation with their countries of origin.
"The EU and its member states must do more in terms of return," according to a copy of the draft conclusions obtained by AFP. "Increased return rates should act as a deterrent to irregular migration."
Europe has seen more than 600,000 illegal arrivals this year as people flee conflict in Syria and other countries, while more than 3,000 people have died while making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.
Luxembourg minister Jean Asselborn - whose country holds the rotating presidency of the EU - said the issue of returning failed asylum seekers to their countries of origin was "important".
Only around 40 per cent of people ordered to leave after their asylum applications failed actually left or were deported from Europe.
He said the issue would be addressed at a summit of EU and African leaders in Valetta in November "so that we can concretise returns." The interior ministers will later Thursday join EU foreign ministers as well as their counterparts from the neighbouring Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo, together with ministers from Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which host the greatest number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
The aim is to tackle the flow of migrants who leave Turkey and land in Greece then make their way through the Balkans to Hungary, Austria and Germany.
'Incentives and pressure'
May defended Britain's policy of taking genuine refugees direct from camps in countries bordering Syria, instead of participating in an EU-wide scheme to relocate people from Greece and Italy.
Last month EU ministers overrode opposition from Eastern European nations to approve a plan to redistribute 160,000 refugees.
A first batch of Eritreans, believed to be around 20 people, is due to be relocated to Sweden from Italy on Friday.
Economic powerhouse Germany has taken the lead in admitting refugees but is so overwhelmed by the numbers - predicted at up to one million asylum applications this year - that it is also stressing the need to return economic migrants.
"We can only take and support people who are in need of protection," German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere told reporters as his government expects to take in one million migrants this year alone.
He also sought to use European development funds as leverage to ensure countries of origin take back economic migrants.
The draft proposals say: "A fine balance of incentives and pressure should be used to enhance the co-operation of third countries on readmission and return."