ROME Italy will ask the European Union next week to take over responsibility for rescuing migrants crossing the Mediterranean in crowded boats from North Africa, a task that is costing its navy 9 million euros ($12.25 million) (7.21 million pounds) a month.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wants EU border agency Frontex to lead the mission, known as Mare Nostrum or "Our Sea", which has rescued about 50,000 migrants this year.
At a June 26-27 EU summit in Brussels, "Prime Minister Renzi will present a plan to transform Frontex to take on the duties of the Mare Nostrum mission", Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said in a radio interview on Tuesday.
Mare Nostrum began last October after 366 people fleeing African countries drowned when their boat capsized a mile from Sicily. The tragedy focused world attention on the desperate risks taken by many migrants, whose plight has been highlighted by human rights groups and Pope Francis.
Italy has repeatedly called for more EU involvement in recent months as the number of sea-borne migrants, most of them seeking asylum, has surged to levels last seen during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
"Faced with this situation, one must decide not to let people - children and mothers - die at sea," Pinotti said.
She defended the mission from critics including the anti-immigrant Northern League party, which says the migrants board dangerous vessels at their own risk and argues that Mare Nostrum should be abandoned.
Because immigration centres are groaning under the number of new arrivals, Italy would also like the EU to help manage the huge number of refugees, Interior Ministry Undersecretary Domenico Manzione told Reuters separately on Tuesday.
Most of the more than 40,000 migrants who reached Italy by sea last year were fleeing Syria's civil war and Eritrea's harsh military service, and the trend has continued this year, the U.N. refugee agency said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last week told Reuters EU countries could take in more refugees rescued in international waters without changing the EU's strict asylum rules, known as the Dublin Regulation.
The Dublin Regulation requires the country where an asylum seeker first arrives to handle their application, putting extra pressure on countries on the EU's outer edge, like Italy, to take them in.
But those rescued in international waters could be hosted by any EU country, perhaps according to a negotiated quota system, said Carlotta Sami, southern Europe's UNHCR spokeswoman.
"The high commissioner's suggestion is worth considering," said Manzione, who is in charge of immigration issues at the ministry.
"It's also true that if Mare Nostrum becomes a European operation, then the ships that pick them up should be considered European territory, and refugees eligible to seek asylum throughout the region."
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)