By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders agreed to speed up the repatriation of migrants who do not qualify for asylum, in a bid to discourage people from attempting the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean.
Heads of government said they would press countries in Africa and elsewhere to take back migrants and seek to give the EU's border protection agency new powers to return newcomers, according to a joint statement released on Friday after a summit in Brussels.
Nearly 2,000 people have died so far this year trying to reach Italy or Greece by boat. Italy forecasts that 200,000 migrants will arrive on its shores in 2015, up from 170,000 in 2014.
Under the EU plan, refugees - many of them fleeing violence in North Africa and the Middle East - would be separated from illegal economic or "irregular" migrants at EU-managed "hotspots" in Italy and Greece, where officials would take their fingerprints.
EU countries committed to use "all tools... to promote readmission of irregular migrants to countries of origin and transit," the joint text said.
The EU border protection agency Frontex would be given a new mandate to start missions to repatriate migrants, accelerating a process that has so far been carried out mostly by individual EU members.
Countries of origin will be urged to sign readmission agreements with the EU or to apply existing ones more effectively. Diplomats say the bloc is ready to use trade and financial aid as leverage to encourage cooperation.
Currently, many migrants are not properly identified when they reach Italy or Greece, allowing them to cross borders and claim protection in northern Europe.
At an often fractious meeting, that ran from Thursday into the early hours of Friday morning, leaders also agreed a plan to share out the care of asylum seekers.
Italy and Greece had asked for more help from member states. But Hungary had described the plan as absurd and won an exemption, alongside Bulgaria, one of the EU's poorest countries.
(Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Andrew Heavens)