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Ankara, Berlin want NATO to monitor Syria refugee flow as more boatloads reach Lesbos

Reuters

Turkey and Germany plan to seek help from NATO allies in monitoring the flow of migrants from Syria trying to get to Europe across the Aegean Sea, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Monday.

Speaking at a joint news conference in Ankara with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Davutoglu said the matter would be jointly raised by the two countries at a meeting of NATO defense ministers on Thursday.

“Turkey and Germany will together recommend to NATO … NATO becoming involved concerning the consequences of the flow of refugees from Syria,” Davutoglu said.

“In particular, we will make a joint effort on the effective use of NATO’s observation and monitoring mechanisms on the border and in the Aegean,” he said, giving no further details.

Migrants have entered Europe by a variety of routes, over sea and over land from Turkey, via Libya and by a northern route through Russia into Scandinavia. Monitoring those movements is important to efforts to control the flow.

Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert wrote on Twitter that support for the Turkish coast guard and the European Union’s Frontex border agency would be discussed at a “NATO level.

U.S. President Barack Obama, whose country’s forces dominate the North Atlantic defense alliance, said after a call with the Italian head of state that he wanted to work with NATO allies to address Europe’s refugee crisis.

At the organization’s Brussels headquarters, a NATO official noted that “assurance measures” agreed in December to help Turkey deal with the spillover from fighting in Syria and Iraq included more intelligence and surveillance in the region, including naval and air patrols in the eastern Mediterranean.

The official added, however: “NATO is not directly involved in responding to the migration crisis at present.”

More than 900,000 people fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and other war-torn or impoverished countries arrived in Greece from Turkey last year, often risking their lives to cross the Aegean in overloaded boats. Hundreds have died in the attempt.

But the refugee flow has not abated.

Among the latest was a group that waved, cheered and let out sighs of relief as their rubber boat, packed with dozens of mainly Syrian and Afghan refugees, approached the Greek coast guard ship that would rescue them at open sea near the island of Lesbos.

After being pulled aboard one by one, the men, women, and children staggered, exhausted and relieved, to the boat’s stern, where they huddled alongside strangers on Monday and waited quietly to be transported to the shore.

They were among more than 300 people, including scores of children and babies, rescued in under two hours from six rubber dinghies by the Greek vessel Agios Efstratios, patrolling near the Turkish border.

By early afternoon, more than 1,500 refugees and migrants reached the eastern Aegean island, a sharp rise in the rate of arrivals from Turkey after days of gale force winds and freezing temperatures.

Over a million people fleeing war, persecution and poverty in the Middle East and Africa have taken rickety boats across the Mediterranean to Europe since early last year. Over 50,000 people have arrived in Greece in 2016, the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says.

Thousands have died trying to reach Europe, and on Monday alone 27 migrants, 11 of them children, drowned off Turkey’s Aegean coast as they tried to reach a Greek island, the Turkish coast guard said.

“We left from death,” said 28-year-old Esma, face framed by a cream-colored headscarf, who fled fighting in Syria’s biggest city of Aleppo with her two children, hoping to reunite with her husband in Germany.

Sitting nearby, young girls consoled their crying siblings, one mother breastfed her hungry infant, while another woman kissed a copy of the Quran and held it up to her forehead.

For most on board, the hardest and most dangerous part of their journey will end once they reach Greece and continue their trek through the Balkans to wealthier Northern Europe.

Eighteen-year-old English student Siba, who fled the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor, said her family spent 25 days trying to cross into Turkey from different entry points and five days on the Turkish coast, unable to board their boat to Greece because of choppy seas and storms.

Asked what drove them to leave Syria, she imitated the sound of explosions and said: “Our house is finished. … My uncle is dead. He died in front of my eyes. His head was cut,” she said.

Others spoke with sorrow of being forced to leave their homes. Mustafa, a 24-year-old mathematics student, also from Syria, said he longed for the time that refugees would be able to return safely to their country.

“No one wants to go. All the people want is to go back to Syria. If the war (ends), everyone will go to Syria and build the country,” he said.