NATO defence ministers have agreed to plan for a surveillance mission in the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece to help crack down on migrant smuggling operations, US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said Thursday, following a Turkish and German initiative.

Europe has been struggling to deal with a surge in migration that saw more than 1 million people reach the continent last year. Many are asylum seekers fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.

The main crossing point into Europe was via Turkey, where migrant smuggling networks help people undertake the sea journey to Greece's Aegean islands, often in rickety boats. More than 340 people are estimated to have died during the crossing this year.

"The aim must be to make the perfidious business of the smugglers and illegal migration more difficult, if not impossible," German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday, ahead of two-day talks in Brussels with her 27 NATO counterparts.

Under the request, NATO would use ships positioned in the Aegean between Turkey and Greece to monitor the waters and feed information to the authorities on both sides, German government sources said on condition of anonymity.

Any migrants rescued by NATO would be returned to Turkey.

One of the key sticking points had been a decades-long territorial dispute between Athens and Ankara over their shared sea borders.

Under the proposal, which was formally presented by Turkey, Germany and Greece, both sides must commit not to enter each other's waters, the sources said.

The idea to involve NATO was floated Monday in a meeting between Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Ankara.

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