Brussels: NATO has agreed to start a mission in the Aegean Sea to help slow refugee flows and to stop people smugglers, German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Thursday.
Chopper rescue of migrant captured on video
RAW: Turkish Coast Guard in helicopter rescue of a lone migrant clinging to the bow of a capsized boat, thought to have had 34 people on board.
"It is important that we now act quickly," Ms von der Leyen told reporters in Brussels.
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said any mission would likely target criminal people smuggling networks.
"There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people and this is an organised smuggling operation," Mr Carter told a news conference during a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
"Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had in the humanitarian dimension," he said.
A record 500,000 refugees from a four-year-old civil war in Syria have travelled through Turkey then risked their lives in rickety boats to reach nearby Greek islands last year, their first stop in the European Union before continuing to wealthier countries in the north and west of the EU.
Nearly 600 people have died last year on the so-called eastern Mediterranean sea route for migrants, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
More than half a million migrants have streamed into Greece, which has become the front line of a massive westward population shift from war-ravaged Syria and conflict- or deprivation-plagued countries beyond.
Turkey struck a deal with the EU on November 29 pledging to help stem the flow of migrants into Europe in return for €3 billion ($4.5 billion) of cash for the 2.2 million Syrians Ankara has been hosting, visas and renewed talks on joining the 28-nation bloc.
Greece announced on Monday it would have migrant registration centres running by next week. The country is under pressure from EU partners who are threatening to sideline it from passport-free travel unless it does more to contain refugees.
European Union interior ministers have urged Athens to do more to control the flow of migrants, some threatening exclusion from the Schengen zone as the crisis increasingly divides bloc members.
So far, just one centre, on the island of Lesbos, where many of the migrants are landing by boat, is open. That will be expanded under the scheme.
Scuffles broke out on Friday and Saturday on the Greek island of Kos between police and a small number of residents protesting at the construction of a registration centre for migrants. There were also protests reported close to the northern city of Thesaloniki on Sunday, and rival protests in Pireaus close to Athens on Monday.
Residents were worried that the arrangement could be for the long-term, said Kos mayor Georgios Kyritsis.
"One wonders if the creation of such facilities may be an incentive for people smugglers," he told Greek Skai TV.