Migrants rescued by NATO vessels in the Aegean Sea will be returned to Turkey, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday, after the military alliance finalized an operation to monitor the smuggling networks that help people reach Greece.
NATO agreed two weeks ago to help combat the flow of migrants to Europe, in response to a request by Turkey, Greece and Germany. But work to agree the details of the operation was held up after Ankara signalled reluctance to take back anyone rescued at sea.
Europe has been struggling to deal with a surge in migration that saw more than 1 million people arrive in 2015. Many are asylum seekers fleeing the war in Syria, but economic migrants have also joined their ranks.
The short sea passage across the Aegean has been their main crossing point to Europe, but has claimed several hundred lives this year.
"We will participate in international efforts to cut the lines of illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean Sea. Because this crisis affects us all," Stoltenberg said in a statement issued early Thursday.
"NATO's task is not to turn back the boats," the NATO chief said, while adding that its vessels had a responsibility to rescue people in distress at sea, as does any boat under international law.
"In case of rescue of persons coming via Turkey, they will be taken back to Turkey," Stoltenberg added.
NATO vessels arrived in the Aegean last week, and are carrying out reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance activities, the NATO chief said, adding that the alliance is also establishing direct links with the European Union's border agency Frontex.
The aim of the operation is to feed information to the national authorities in Greece and Turkey, to help them crack down on human trafficking and criminal networks fuelling the migration crisis.
Four vessels under German command, including personnel from Canada, Greece and Turkey, were rerouted last week from another part of the Mediterranean Sea, according to NATO officials.
NATO vessels participating in the operation can operate in Greek and Turkish waters, but Ankara and Athens have agreed not to send forces into each others' waters or airspace, Stoltenberg said. The two sides are embroiled in a long-running territorial dispute.
He noted that NATO is uniquely placed to facilitate the cooperation and exchange of information between Greece and Turkey, as both countries are members of the alliance, while only Greece is in the EU.