NATO announced on Sunday, 6 March, that its Aegean Sea patrols have been expanded to Greek and Turkish territorial waters. NATO patrols have been operating only in international waters. And while NATO says its ‘mission is not to stop or turn back those trying to cross into Europe’, NATO has made it clear that NATO ships will return rescued migrants directly to Turkey: ‘In case of rescue at sea of persons coming via Turkey, they will be taken back to Turkey.’ NATO’s plan to summarily return intercepted migrants is consistent with previous statements made by the British and German defence ministers who have said that the purpose of the NATO mission is to stop migrants and return them to Turkey.
NATO’s characterisation of its operation seems to be an attempt to draw a distinction between a push-back practice where any migrant boat, regardless of whether it is in need of rescue, would be intercepted and pushed back and a search and rescue operation providing assistance to migrant boats in need of rescue. This is meaningless distinction given the current situation in the Aegean where every migrant boat is in need of assistance or rescue.
NATO ships are subject to the same rescue at sea obligations imposed by the SOLAS and SAR Conventions as all other ships and are obligated to disembark rescued persons in a ‘place of safety.’ And while disembarking in Turkey is safer than disembarking in Syria or Libya, there are serious questions as to whether Turkey is a place of safety. See the recent Q&A issued by Human Rights Watch concluding that Turkey is not a ‘safe third country’ as defined by EU law. While the question of a ‘place of safety’ under the SAR Convention is not identical to the ‘safe third country’ question under EU law, the fact remains that rescued migrants should not in all cases be automatically returned to Turkey without adequate screening and processing. The failure to screen rescued migrants is a clear violation of the non-refoulement obligations of the individual EU and non-EU States operating under the NATO command.