Why is NATO sending ships to the Aegean Sea?

NATO is sending ships to the Aegean to conduct an anti-smuggling operation aimed at securing European borders and preventing refugee deaths. 

Virginia Mayo/AP Photo
US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter (rear r.) greets members at the table along with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (rear l.) during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. NATO defense ministers convened a two-day meeting to discuss current defense issues and whether the Alliance should take a more direct role in dealing with its gravest migrant crisis since WWII.

The secretary general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) announced on Thursday that the alliance will attempt to crack down on human smuggling in the Aegean Sea by sending ships to police the waters between Turkey and Greece.

European Union and United Nations officials have struggled for some time with the idea of using force to confront the refugee crisis. In the first five weeks of 2016 alone, over 70,000 migrants crossed the Aegean to Greece, many of them refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria. In 2015, only about four thousand entered Greece by sea in the same period of time.

“Europe is facing the greatest refugee and migrant crisis since the end of the Second World War,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a press conference on Thursday, “driven by conflict and instability on our southern borders, as well as criminal networks that traffic in human suffering.”

The migrant crisis is a necessarily fraught topic. Many refugees who cross to Greece are fleeing a civil war in Syria that has displaced millions, both within the country and in the Middle East and Europe.

A recent UN Human Rights Council report states that all sides in the Syrian conflict have committed war crimes. The Human Rights Council also reports that the Syrian government carried out exterminations of detainees. About 4.6 million Syrians have fled the country thus far.

The massive increase in refugees has Europe scrambling to secure its borders. In late January, the European Union warned Greece to better secure its borders under threat of being cut out of the EU’s Schengen group. Schengen zone members enjoy free travel within the zone.

More than 850,000 migrants entered Europe through Greece last year, although the European Commission says that sixty percent of those migrants are economic migrants rather than refugees.

According to Mr. Stoltenberg, NATO’s decision is in response to a joint request by Germany, Greece, and Turkey, all of which are struggling to handle the deluge of migrants pouring through their borders.

“The goal is to participate in the international effort,” said Stoltenberg Thursday, “to stem the illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean.”

“NATO’s involvement says that it is not only a European problem,” said Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Center on Foreign Policy. “I think it is about time that NATO acknowledge that it is a security issue affecting Europe.”

Ships from Canada, Germany, Greece, and Turkey will be deployed under the command of NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, US Army Gen. Philip Breedlove. Reuters reports that General Breedlove’s ships are already on their way.

NATO already maintains a standing maritime force in the region, although it is currently under German command.

“It will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring, and surveillance of the illegal crossings of the Aegean Sea, in cooperation with the relevant authorities and to establish a direct link with the European Union’s border management agency,” said Stoltenberg. “This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats.”

The NATO action is an anti-smuggling operation, not an attempt to harm refugees. Although it is not yet clear what the engagement rules will be, NATO will work with Turkish and Greek coast guards and the EU’s border control agency, Frontex.

Nearly four thousand people died in the Aegean last year due to overcrowded and unsafe boats piloted by human smugglers. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called smugglers who capitalize on human desperation, “criminals.”

Ms. Cohen told The Christian Science Monitor that no matter what the rules of engagement are, “I would hope there will be a zero tolerance of refugees dying in rickety or overcrowded boats.”

Doctors Without Borders advisor Aurelie Ponthieu criticized NATO’s plan, saying, “How many deaths will it take before Europe, Turkey, and others focus their energy on providing humanitarian solutions rather than deterrence measures that clearly miss the point?"

According to The Associated Press, two human traffickers are on trial now for causing the deaths of five people, including 3-year-old Aylen Kurdi, who made heartbreaking headlines when a photographer captured an image of his tiny body in the waves on a Turkish beach.

“It is important to respond quickly, because this crisis affects us all,” Stoltenberg told the press on Thursday.

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