Italy has called on the European Union and UN to set up operations in African countries south of Libya to help stem the flow of migrants heading for Europe.

The call came just days after at least 800 migrants trying to enter Europe drowned in the Mediterranean when their overloaded boat capsized, only 28 survived.

"We have to go to the root [of the problem] and discourage these men and women from leaving their countries," Matteo Renzi, Italy's prime minister, told deputies in a statement to parliament on his objectives for Thursday's emergency EU summit on the Mediterranean migrant crisis.

"There has to be a strong presence of the international organisations in the area south of Libya. It is vital that the EU as a bloc tries to go into these areas along with the United Nations." 

The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimate at least 1,500 people have died in the first four months of 2015 in the Mediterranean, while attempting to enter Europe in search of a better life.

It is not clear whether this figure includes the death toll from the disaster over the weekend.

Last year, witnessed the highest death toll, with 3,419 people dying at sea, according to UNCHR and IOM estimates. About 2,300 people died in 2011, 500 in 2012 and 700 in 2013. 

'Targeted interventions'

Renzi specifically mentioned Libya's neighbours Niger and Sudan, both transit countries for migrants making their way to Libya, where people traffickers are able to operate with impunity because of lawlessness in the conflict-torn country. 

While Renzi did not give details of what UN agencies should do in the African states, a number of European countries have raised the idea of asylum-seekers having their requests for refuge in the EU assessed before they get to the point of embarking on life-risking crossings. 

Officials have also raised the idea of a pilot scheme to provide funds for migrants deemed to have no claim to enter the EU to be fast-tracked back to their countries of origin. 

Carrying out triage operations of this kind in Libya is not feasible at the moment because of the security situation in the country, which has resulted in many Western governments withdrawing nearly all of their diplomats. 

Renzi said the EU also had to step up rescue operations at sea to reduce the loss of life among those who do attempt the crossing. 

He did not refer to the idea of "targeted interventions" against people traffickers which he had floated earlier this week. 

PM optimistic 

Renzi said he was hopeful that EU governments would belatedly hear Italy's pleas for help in coping with the challenging migrant flow following the weekend disaster in which hundreds are feared to have perished in a shipwreck off Libya. 

"I have seen the reaction there has been in recent hours. The calling of an EU summit is an extraordinary step," Renzi said. "I'm optimistic we will see a change of gear." 

He said Europe was morally bound to act. 

"Fighting people trafficking means fighting the slave traders of the 21st century. It is not only a question of security and terrorism - it is about human dignity." 

EU foreign ministers have already approved plans to double the funding of the bloc's Mediterranean maritime border patrol mission Triton.

But refugee bodies say it will remain inadequate and have urged Italy to resume larger scale naval patrols off Libya.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies