The sharp drop in refugees crossing the Aegean Sea means there is no longer any need for NATO warships to patrol Turkey’s coast, the Turkish defence minister said on Wednesday. The NATO mission to the Aegean to intercept refugees trying to reach Greece by sea has been running since April.
The statement by Turkey came days after reports indicated an alarming rise in the number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea. The number of refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year has almost matched all of last year's death toll with two months still to go, according to figures by aid agencies.
"This was a temporary mission, and the goal has been reached in this temporary mission,” Turkey's Defence Minister Fikri Isik told his NATO colleagues at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels. “There is no need to extend it further."
He said Ankara no longer saw a need for the mission to continue beyond the end of December.
After the meeting, Germany's Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters that the Aegean mission was secure until Dec. 31 and that NATO members will later discuss the next mission plan for 2017.
Germany currently leads the maritime mission.
An EU deal with Turkey which sees Turkey given extra support to keep refugees on its territory and stop people smugglers moving them illegally across the Aegean to Greece remains in place.
According to a European Commission report in September, only 85 people are arriving to the Greek coast every day, compared with over 10,000 a day in October last year.
But the high risk of being caught in the Aegean has led refugees and migrants to change their route to Europe by crossing from the North African coast, complicating the work of rescue teams working in the Mediterranean.
Since the deal between the EU and Turkey came into effect, the route from Libya to Italy has seen an increase of human trafficking and deaths at sea.