BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Germany would take part in a potential NATO mission to help slow refugee flows in the Aegean Sea, the country's defense minister said on Wednesday, a day before the alliance is due to discuss a request for help.
Struggling to stop refugees streaming into Greece despite a deal between Ankara and the European Union to combat the flows, Germany and Turkey surprised partners this week by saying they would raise the issue with NATO.
One idea could be for NATO to monitor the flow of migrants from Syria trying to reach Europe across the Aegean and pass the information on to Turkish authorities to go after people smugglers.
"It is good that Turkey has asked NATO to intensify the maritime surveillance in the Aegean as part of the reassurance measures," German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters. "Germany will take part in these activities."
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday he had spoken with both Germany and Turkey and that "we will take very seriously the request to look into what NATO can do."
The European Union's migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos was careful to stress Germany and others had not asked NATO, a military alliance, to respond to a 'threat'.
"Do you see any threat there?" Avramopoulos asked reporters. "We are talking about human beings," he said. He also cautioned that any decision at NATO would need to be discussed with the European Union, which is dealing with the crisis.
Pressed for details about what NATO might do, Britain's Defence Minister Michael Fallon said: "Anything that helps save lives in the eastern Mediterranean and helps disrupt the criminal business model behind this trafficking is extremely welcome."
More than one million people arrived in Europe last year, fleeing war and failing states in the Middle East and North Africa. Numbers show little sign of falling, despite the winter.
NATO allies already have ships in the eastern Mediterranean, part of efforts to shore up Turkey's air defenses against missiles from Syria and Russian airspace violations.
Writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Dominic Evans