Turkey sees lesser NATO role in Aegean, lower migrant numbers

COMPILED FROM WIRE SERVICES
ISTANBUL
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Once struggling to stop the migrant flow to Europe, Turkey now boasts a significant drop in the number of people leaving its Aegean shores on deadly journeys. Thus, "it is time for NATO elements deployed in the Aegean Sea since last year to be withdrawn," Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu said.

The minister was speaking at a forum in the city of Antalya on Coast Guard forces of the Mediterranean Sea, one of the favorite yet deadliest crossings for thousands of illegal immigrants every year into Europe.

The image of Alan Kurdi, a 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned when the boat he was in sank, stirred up emotions in Europe and accelerated a deal to curb the refugee and migrant influx to Europe between the EU and Turkey. The number of refugees and migrants making a perilous journies across the Aegean Sea significantly decreased after the deal went into force last year. NATO and EU missions also patrolled the seas to intercept boats. Under the deal, Turkey and EU countries also agreed to exchange migrants settled in Turkey and European Union countries.

Soylu said the number of irregular migrants intercepted on the Greek side of the Aegean Sea was 853,650 in 2015, but dropped to 20,364 this year. "We work not only to stop them from reaching the other coast, but from leaving our shore as well," Soylu said. The minister added that daily crossings reached 9,800 at times in the past, but an average of 70 people tried to cross into Greece this year. He said that strict measures to prevent illegal migration forced human smugglers to shift their route to Europe to the "Italian and Spanish route." He also said that illegal migration activity in the Black Sea started in August. "All of a sudden, there was a flurry of migrant boats. We had the situation under control thanks to cooperation between our law enforcement agencies," he said.

On the other hand, Turkey's land border with Greece is apparently becoming another route for illegal migrants. Police in northern Greece reported a rise in the number of refugees and migrants illegally entering via the country's land border in September. According to police in the city of Thessaloniki, some 2,428 people entered Greece illegally over the land border in September, compared to 1,497 in August.

Turkey is a transit country for migrants hailing from Asian countries. Over the past six years, it also became a hub for migrants from war-torn Syria. It hosts the largest Syrian population outside their homeland at more than 3 million. A small fraction of Syrians live in refugee camps near Turkey's border with Syria, while most live in rental houses. Others aspire to reach Europe where their relatives live, and especially Germany, which offers generous benefits to migrants.

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