EU nations have approved plans to seize and destroy boats used by human traffickers in the Mediterranean to stop the influx of refugees making the dangerous journey from North Africa to southern Europe.
The decision to step up efforts comes after the EU started the first phase of the European Union Naval Operation Atalanta (EU-NAVFOR) mission - comprising of one Italian, one British and two German ships - after they agreed to gather intelligence against people smugglers and conduct humanitarian rescue operations in July.
Speaking to the AFP news agency, an unnamed European diplomat said that "the conditions have been met" to push the mission into its second phase.
Although the second phase of the mission limits its action to international waters, approved on Monday, countries in the 28-member bloc have been reluctant to carry out operations against the people smugglers, fearing they could be dragged into a conflict between rival groups in Libya, a departure point for most of the refugees attempting to enter Europe from the African continent.
Due to begin next month, the enlarged mission will require more ships. Russia has also said permission from the UN Security Council may be granted next month to take the mission into a third phase, which would see EU vessels entering Libyan waters to destroy smuggler boats before they depart.
However, Russia has said that such permission would most likely be limited to the high seas.
A security vacuum arising in Libya after the death of former autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 has allowed thousands of refugees escaping conditions of war and poverty to travel across the country to the northern coast, from which they set sail for Italy.
The International Organization for Migration has recorded an estimated 3,000 people have died while making the voyage across the Mediterranean’s choppy waters so far this year, including over 700 who drowned in one tragedy in April.
More than 350,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, far exceeding last year's number, which was 219,000 for the entire year of 2014, the International Organization for Migration said. An estimated 234,778 people have made it to Greece and 114,276 people made it to Italy, while 2,166 debarked in Spain and 94 arrived in Malta.
A number of refugees also follow a route through Turkey or Greece to reach the Balkans. From there, they cross over to EU countries.
EU member states agreed last month to accept 32,000 refugees arriving in Italy and Greece over the next two years, while the target was originally 40,000.
EU interior ministers are due to meet in Brussels, later on Monday, to once again discuss the redistribution quotas of refugees who have already entered Europe.