ANKARA — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday threatened to send millions of refugees in Turkey to European Union (EU) states, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) agreed to deploy ships to the Aegean Sea to ease the migrant crisis.

In a speech in Ankara, Mr 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 more than a million made the journey last year. But Turkey, already home to about 3-million refugees, is also under EU and United Nations (UN) pressure to take in tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing regime advances in Aleppo.

Mr 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,” Mr Erdogan said.

Greek website had earlier this week reported that at the Group of 20 summit in Antalya in November Mr Erdogan had angrily threatened to EU Commission president Jean Claude Juncker that Turkey could send the refugees to Europe.

The website quoted Mr Erdogan as telling Mr Juncker: “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time 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’,” Mr Erdogan said.

He also lashed out at the UN calls on Turkey to take in Syrian refugees from the Aleppo region massed on the border with Turkey, saying the UN had spent less than $500m in the crisis.

“Shame on you! Shame on you!” said Mr Erdogan, adding that the UN should be telling other states to take in refugees from Turkey.

The country 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. Mr Erdogan said Turkey had already spent about $9bn on hosting the refugees since Syria’s civil war began almost half a decade ago.

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

“The €3bn is not in our budget, where has it gone?” asked Mr Erdogan.

“It’s for refugees!”

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 the Second World War.

Speaking after Nato defence ministers approved the mission, secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg said Nato was “now directing the standing maritime group to move into the Aegean without delay and start maritime surveillance activities”.

He emphasised: “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 Organisation for Migration by last Sunday, 70,365 migrants had arrived by sea in Greece from Turkey so far this year, an average of 2,000 a day. It said 319 had perished on the way.

Meanwhile, two suspected people smugglers went on trial in Bodrum, Turkey yesterday charged with causing the death in September of a Syrian toddler, the picture of whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach shocked the world.

The death of Aylan Kurdi, aged just three, jolted EU leaders into greater action in the migrant crisis. If convicted, the two men, both Syrians, faced up to 35 years in jail, the Dogan news agency said.