Italy is to take a tougher stance on illegal migration in 2017, following a 12-month period that saw a record number of migrants enter the country, estimated at 500,000.

The move by Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni is his first major policy change and marks a different mindset to his predecessor Matteo Renzi, who adopted a more laid-back approach.

Franco Gabrielli, the chief of police sent a two-page document to stations around Italy, asking them to deport and identify economic migrants who are not entitled to asylum.

The document, which was published by the Corriere della Sera newspaper over the weekend, described the migrant crisis as "a growing migratory pressure and an international context marked by instability and threats".

Italy will open new detention centres to hold illegal immigrants before they are deported under the new plans, according to a Times report. Renzi, the previous prime minister, resisted setting up these facilities, believing that the country could integrate the migrants successfully within Italy without them.

Figures released last week by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees showed that Italy was the most attractive route into the EU, with more than 180,000 non-EU arrivals.

The popularity of this route has resulted in more people dying in the treacherous waters of the Mediterranean sea. The death toll has now passed 4,400 after two rubber dinghies capsized over a week ago, according to officials.

Last year, the number of migrants arriving by sea rose by nearly one fifth, bringing the three-year total to over 500,000, stretching Italy's resources to accommodate them. Italy only has four pre-repatriation camps in operation, which can only comfortably house about 360 people.

In 2015, the EU agreed to house 40,000 asylum seekers from Italy to other member states, but only 2,654 have been transferred to date. Some states have been unwilling to take refugees, including Poland. Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania are other countries that voted against the EU quotas.

Italy was named as the 'frontline' of Europe's refugee crisis, replacing Greece, said Fabrice Leggeri, head of the EU's border agency, according to Euronews.

''This is not about punishing any countries, it's about collectively strengthening the Schengen zone [which allows free cross-border movement within most of the European Union], it's about making the external border more efficient and stronger,'' Leggeri said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Angelino Alfano told Reuters: "If Europe does not fulfil its own responsibilities and show solidarity, it will find a different Italy facing it."