Military alliance sends three warships, backed by planes, to intercept migrants and refugees in admission from EU that it is failing to cope with flow of people.
Nato has sent a patrol of three warships to intercept migrants trying to reach Greece by sea and send them back to Turkey, as Europe steps up efforts to contain the refugee crisis.
The mission has been agreed and ordered to the Aegean sea in less than 24 hours, an extremely rapid move for the alliance. Nato normally spends months deliberating over decisions and agreeing details.
The German-led patrol will be backed by planes that can monitor the flow of people attempting illegal crossings. Greece and Turkey have agreed that any migrants they intercept will be sent back.
“They will not be taken back to Greece. The aim of the group is to have them taken back to Turkey. That is the crucial difference,” said the British defence secretary, Michael Fallon.
“This is the first time we have seen a group tasked with returning migrants. That has not happened before. So that is quite an important development.”
The UK does not have any ships involved but is looking at how it could contribute, Fallon told journalists after a meeting of defence ministers in Brussels, where the plan was hammered out.
“It could definitely help save lives in the Aegean and it could help break the criminal gangs that are trafficking migrants from Turkey into Europe,” he added.
Nato and the EU have been keen to avoid any impression that they see refugees as a threat, and the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, initially denied that the ships would try to stop people from crossing into Europe. “This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” he said.
Germany’s defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, had already indicated she favoured a far more robust approach and had secured Ankara’s permission to send some refugees back to Turkey, the Deutsche Welle newspaper reported.
The ships are to be ordered to the Aegean to begin the mission “without delay”, and are expected to be in place on Friday, even though the details of their role are still being filled in, said US air force general Philip Breedlove.
The Nato flotilla will be led by the German navy’s flagship, the Bonn, supported by Turkey’s frigate Barbaros and the Canadian frigate, Fredericton.
“This mission has literally come together in about the last 20 hours,” Breedlove told journalists. “I have been tasked now to go back and define the mission, define the rules of engagement, define all of what we call special operation instructions, all of the things that will lay out what we are going to do.”
He declined to comment on whether the Nato crews would join local coastguards in rescuing migrants whose boats had sunk or were failing.
Turkey hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, and has warned that tens of thousands more who have fled a government advance on Aleppo were seeking to join them.
Greece, as the first point of entry for most people seeking asylum in Europe, is under concerted pressure from European governments to do much more to halt the influx of refugees and migrants from Turkey.
And Germany has been the main destination for new arrivals after Merkel decided in effect to open the country’s doors to Syrians last summer. When the numbers rose faster than expected, the country struggled to cope.
The refugee crisis has since pushed support for Merkel to a four-year low, and as thousands of people continue to pour across Germany’s borders, fewer than one in five Germans think the government is handling the challenge well.
efence ministers from the 28 countries in the US-led military alliance agreed in principle to the mission and have asked officials to look at a variety of options for establishing patrols along the Turkish and Greek coasts and other smuggling routes. Several member states have offered to send reinforcements to the three-ship mission.
Earlier this week, the International Organisation for Migration said 409 people had died so far this year trying to cross the sea to Europe, and that nearly 10 times as many refugees and migrants crossed in the first six weeks of 2016 as in the same period last year.
There have been concerns that a strong naval presence might encourage more people to attempt to reach Europe, as there would be a greater chance of being picked up in the event of boats sinking.
People smugglers in Libya told the Guardian last year that an increased military presence in the Mediterranean would not act as a deterrent.
Nato involvement is an admission that the EU, which is responsible at present for dealing with the influx of migrants, is struggling to cope with the numbers travelling by sea.
The alliance already has a strong naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean to help protect Turkey from any incursions from Syria.