Nato to take migrants back to Turkey, if rescued
Nato ships will take anybody they rescue in the Aegean Sea back to Turkey instead of Greece, the head of the military alliance has said.
“When we rescue those people, what we agreed with Turkey at a ministerial level, we agreed that if those people came from Turkey then we can return them to Turkey,” Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, told the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday (23 February).
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Nato states’ defence ministers two weeks ago decided to send ships to monitor the waters between Turkey and Greek islands.
The International Organisation of Migration estimates that over 102,000 asylum seekers, most of them Syrians, made the crossing from Turkey so far this year.
Dozens of people have drowned en route.
Stoltenberg said Nato’s mandate isn’t to “police” the waters, but to give information to the Greek and Turkish coastguards, as well as to the EU border control agency Frontex, so that they can crack down on human smugglers.
But he added that under international law if a Nato ship is “close to a vessel in distress, a boat with refugees that’s sinking” then it’s “obliged to help those people.”
“Everything we do with Nato capabilities … in the Aegean Sea will be according to international law,” he said.
He noted that Nato air power is also monitoring movements of refugees on the Syrian-Turkish land border, which was recently closed by Turkey.
He said the Aegean operation, which is currently limited to between two and five ships, might “do more” in future, without giving details.
“We’d like to do more … We’re now concluding the technical details of our operational mandate,” he said.
Some Greek MEPs voiced concern that Turkey, whose ships are taking part in the operation, might use it to score points against Greece.
The two countries, which are historical adversaries, have had maritime zone and airspace disputes in the region.
Eva Kaili, a centre-left Greek deputy, said Turkish warplanes routinely violate Greek airspace, with 36 violations recorded on Monday alone.
“How will you respond if Turkey uses the Nato mission as a cover to question Greek sovereignty in the Aegean?”, she said.
Stoltenberg replied that the Greek defence minister approved the mission, however.
He also said the new project might improve relations between Greece and Turkey and improve Nato-EU cooperation.
“It was the 28 Nato states who decided [on the Aegean mission]… it’s not some people in Brussels developing ideas and trying to make allies implement them,” he said. “It’s not me inventing the idea.”
He voiced hope that a US-Russia deal to pause hostilities in Syria this coming weekend will stick.
He said the Syria talks, as with previous talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, show that Nato powers still have a “dialogue” with Russia despite their grave concern over its behaviour in Syria and Ukraine.
But he said plans to restart meetings of the Nato-Russia Council, which were suspended after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are yet to bear fruit.
He justified the alliance's military build-up in central Europe as being of a purely "defensive" nature. “Nato doesn’t seek confrontation [with Russia]. We do not want a new Cold War,” he said.
Some MEPs, as well as national MPs who attended Tuesday’s parliamentary hearing, questioned his choice of vocabulary.
“Why are we afraid of the expression Cold War when we have a lukewarm war in Ukraine with daily shelling and people killed? This didn’t happen in the classic Cold War,” Karel Schwarzenberg, a Czech MP and former foreign minister said.
Stoltenberg replied that the fighting in east Ukraine is “a hot war, a real war … that also affects our security.”
He noted that Nato is creating a Russia-deterrent force, with eight new mini-bases in central Europe.
He also said recently purchased Nato drones will monitor “hybrid” threats in the region, by reference to Russia’s use of infiltrators and agent provocateurs alongside its conventional forces in Ukraine.
He said his native country, Norway, a Nato member, is also buying new frigates, F35 warplanes, and submarines to counter Russia’s military build-up in the Arctic Circle.