Erdogan threatens to send refugees to EU as NATO steps in

ANKARA, Turkey – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday, February 11 threatened to send the millions of refugees in Turkey to European Union (EU) member states, as NATO agreed to deploy ships to the Aegean Sea to ease the migrant crisis.

In a speech in Ankara, Erdogan stepped up his denunciations of Western policy in the refugee crisis, confirming he had threatened EU leaders at a summit meeting in November that Turkey could say "goodbye" to the refugees.

But in a separate move, NATO agreed to send a naval group "without delay" to the Aegean to crack down on the people smugglers who have helped hundreds of thousands of migrants cross to EU territory in the last year.

Alarm is growing in EU capitals that thousands of migrants are still crossing the Aegean daily from Turkey after over a million made the perilous journey last year.

But Turkey, already home to some 3 million refugees, is also under EU and UN pressure to take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing regime advances in the Aleppo region.

Erdogan sought to turn the tables on the EU by saying Turkey had every right to turf the refugees out of the country if it so wished.

"We do not have the word 'idiot' written on our foreheads. We will be patient but we will do what we have to. Don't think that the planes and the buses are there for nothing," Erdogan said.

Greek website had earlier this week reported that at the G20 summit in Antalya in November Erdogan had angrily threatened to EU Commission president Jean Claude Juncker that Turkey could send the refugees to Europe.

The website had quoted Erdogan as telling Juncker: "We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and put the refugees on buses."

"I am proud of what I said. We have defended the rights of Turkey and the refugees. And we told them (the Europeans): 'Sorry, we will open the doors and say 'goodbye' to the migrants'," Erdogan said in his speech Thursday.

'Shame on you!'

He also lashed out at UN calls on Turkey to take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees from Aleppo region massed on the border with Turkey, saying the United Nations has spent less than half a billion dollars in the crisis. (READ: EU says Turkey must keep border open to Syrian refugees)

"Shame on you! Shame on you!" said Erdogan, saying the UN should be telling states to take in refugees from Turkey.

Turkey is already hosting 2.5 million refugees from Syria's civil war and hundreds of thousands from Iraq and is increasingly bitter it has been left to shoulder the burden.

Erdogan said Turkey had already spent some 9 billion dollars on hosting the refugees since Syria's almost half decade civil war began.

The EU has agreed to give Turkey 3 billion euros in financial aid for the refugees but the funds have yet to be handed to Turkey, two-and-a-half months after they were agreed.

"The 3 billion euros is not in our budget, where has it gone?" asked Erdogan. "It's for refugees!"

'NATO to counter trafficking'

The NATO deployment follows a request this week by alliance members Germany, Greece and Turkey for assistance in tackling Europe's biggest migrant crisis since World War II.

Speaking after NATO defense ministers approved the mission, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO is "now directing the standing maritime group to move into the Aegean without delay and start maritime surveillance activities".

The group comprises 3 ships that are currently under German command.

He emphasized: "This is not about stopping and pushing back (refugee boats)... but about critical surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks."

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), by February 7, 70,365 migrants arrived by sea in Greece from Turkey, an average of 2,000 a day. It said 319 perished on the way.

In the latest tragedy in the Aegean, Turkish security forces Thursday found the body of an 8-year-old girl washed up on the shore close to Didim in the Aydin region.

The girl had been dead for some 15 days, had no clothes and her body was starting to rot, the Radikal online daily said. – Burak Akinci and Stuart Williams in Istanbul, AFP/