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15th Jul 2018

Aegean zones complicate Nato migrant rescues

  • "Nato doesn’t have a juridical personality. It’s an intergovernmental, multinational organisation" (Photo: Nato)

Nato on Thursday (25 February) agreed the terms of its Aegean monitoring operation. But small print on migrant rescues is being read in various ways.

Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said Nato vessels are already in the region doing “surveillance” of “illegal trafficking and illegal migration.”

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He said Nato’s task “is not to turn back the boats” but to spot boats and alert the Greek and Turkish coastguards and EU border control agency Frontex.

With dozens of dinghies crossing each day, he noted that Nato vessels are, under international law, obliged to rescue people at risk of drowning.

“In case of rescue of persons coming via Turkey, they will be taken back to Turkey,” he said.

The statement means that anybody rescued by Nato, which has up to five ships in the area, would go back to Turkey because all the migrants are coming from Turkey to Greece.

“[Rescued] people coming from Turkey will be handed to Turkish authorities,” a Nato official told EUobserver.

Turkish reading

Meanwhile, Turkey has its own reading of the accords.

In terms of surveillance, Turkey says that if Nato spots a migrant boat in Turkish or international waters, it has to inform the Turkish coastguard, which will return them to Turkey.

But if Nato spots a boat in Greek waters, it tells the Greek coastguard, which has to take care of the people on board.

In terms of rescues, a senior Turkish official told EUobserver: “If Nato rescues people in Greek waters, it still has to notify Greeks, not to give them to Turkey.”

The small print is significant because of the mosaic of Greek and Turkish maritime zones, a source of dispute in the past.

Flag states

Meanwhile, Nato itself has no responsibility for rescues.

The Nato official told EUobserver: “Nato doesn’t have a juridical personality. It’s an intergovernmental, multinational organisation.”

Nato member countries rotate vessels in and out of the Aegean “maritime group”.

If one of them finds a migrant boat in distress, its own flag state, not Nato as an institution, is responsible for keeping them from harm.

“If allied vessels encounter people in distress at sea, they have to live up to their national responsibility to assist,” Stoltenberg said on Thursday.

Opinion

Nato enters the migration control business

A new Nato operation in the Aegean Sea raises the question of whether stemming the flow will, in effect, mean collective expulsions that deny people the right to seek asylum, says Human Rights Watch's Bill Frelick.

Schengen at stake in Austria-Germany talks

German interior minister Horst Seehofer is in Vienna on Thursday - as his plan to reject some asylum seekers was met by an Austrian threat to close its borders too.

Polish PM defends judicial witch-hunt

Poland's judicial purge was meant to punish former communists, its PM has said, in an angry EU debate that saw him ultimately promise to respect EU court rulings.

EU leaders still in search of migration plan

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