The EU has assured the UN Security Council that "no refugee or migrant intercepted at sea will be sent back against their will".
ederica Mogherini addressed the council as the 28-member EU prepares to start making decisions next week on an operation to identify, capture and destroy boats before they are used by migrant smugglers.
Concerns remain even among some council members that the migrants themselves will be harmed, sent back or not be allowed to seek better lives.
The UN's special representative for international migration says about half of the people who reach Europe qualify as refugees. Peter Sutherland praises a planned EU quota system where countries share the refugee settlement burden. But the Irish Government is said to be opposed to the quotas plan.
EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has pleaded for UN help to dismantle criminal groups smuggling migrants into the European Union.
"We need to count on your support to save lives," she told a Security Council briefing on EU plans to use force against smugglers. Libya, where many smugglers operate, has objected to the EU proposals.
More than 1,800 people are feared to have died this way in 2015 - a 20-fold increase on the same period in 2014.
Some 60,000 people have already tried to cross the Mediterranean this year, the UN estimates. Many of the migrants are fleeing conflict or poverty in countries such as Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria and Somalia.
Speaking in New York yesterday, Ms Mogherini said the EU's first priority was to "save lives and prevent further loss of lives at sea".
She outlined proposals agreed by EU governments last month. These include:
n Reinforcing search and rescue efforts;
n Tripling financial resources for this purpose over the next two years;
n Disrupting smuggling networks and bringing the perpetrators to justice;
n More efforts to identify, capture and destroy their vessels.
The EU must seek UN approval in order to establish a clear legal basis for any military operation in Libyan territorial waters.
It is as yet unclear what shape military action could take.
Ms Mogherini reiterated that "no refugees or migrants intercepted at sea will be sent back against their will".
Tomorrow the EU is also expected to propose a quota system for distributing asylum seekers between EU members, along with plans to increase legal means for migrants to come to Europe so that they do not turn to smugglers.
Meanwhile, hundreds of migrants abandoned at sea by smugglers in Southeast Asia have reached land and relative safety in the past two days. But an estimated 6,000 Bangladeshis and Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar remain trapped in crowded, wooden boats.
With food and clean water running low, some could be in grave danger.
Worried that vessels will start washing to shore with dead bodies, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the United States and several other foreign governments and international organisations held emergency meetings in recent days, but participants say there are no immediate plans to search for vessels in the busy Malacca Strait waterways.
One of the concerns is what to do with the Rohingya if a rescue is launched.
The minority group is denied citizenship in Myanmar, and other countries have long worried that opening their doors to a few would result in an unstemmable flow of poor, uneducated migrants.
"These are people in desperate straits," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, calling on governments to help those still stranded at sea, some for two months or longer.
The Muslim Rohingya have for decades suffered from state-sanctioned discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, which considers them illegal settlers from Bangladesh, even though their families have lived there for generations.