Nato launches naval patrols to return migrants to Turkey

Three warships to be deployed today as EU steps up efforts to contain migrant crisis

 The German-led patrol will be backed by planes that can monitor the flow of people attempting illegal crossings. Photograph: Ingo Wagner/AP

The German-led patrol will be backed by planes that can monitor the flow of people attempting illegal crossings. Photograph: Ingo Wagner/AP

 

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 migrant and 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, after a meeting of defence ministers in Brussels, where the plan was hammered out.

“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.”

Nato and the EU have been keen to avoid the impression they see refugees as a threat. Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg initially denied the ships would try to stop people crossing into Europe. “This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” he said.

More robust approach

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 are expected to be in place today, 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,” Gen Breedlove told journalists. “I have been tasked 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 coast guards in rescuing migrants whose boats had sunk or were failing.

Turkey hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, and has warned tens of thousands more who have fled a government advance on Aleppo are 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.

The crisis has since pushed support for Dr Merkel to a four- year low. As thousands continue to pour across Germany’s borders, fewer than one in five Germans think the government is handling the challenge well.

Reinforcements

Defence 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 setting up 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.

– (Guardian service)