Nato to enter migrant crisis by sending ships to Aegean Sea
Crackdown on people smugglers announced in bid to disrupt criminal networks
US secretary of defence Ash Carter: “There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people and this is an organised smuggling operation,” he said. “Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had.” Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters
The move, discussed by Nato ministers for the first time at a meeting in Brussels, is aimed at helping the continent tackle its worst migration crisis since the second World War, with more than a million asylum seekers arriving last year.
Although the plan is still to be detailed by Nato generals, member states are likely to use ships to work with Turkish and Greek coast guards and the European Union border agency Frontex.
“There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people and this is an organised smuggling operation,” US secretary of defence Ash Carter told a news conference.
“Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had . . . That is the principal intent of this,” Mr Carter said.
The numbers of people fleeing war and failing states, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, show little sign of falling, despite winter weather that makes sea crossings even more perilous.
A €3 billion deal between the EU and Turkey to stem the flows has yet to have a big impact.
The alliance’s so-called Standing Nato Maritime Group Two has five ships near Cyprus, and secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said the vessels would soon start to move into the Aegean, with more likely to be needed.
Denmark is also expected to contribute a ship, according to a German government source.
“It is important that we now act quickly,” German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said, adding that Nato’s involvement should act to deter traffickers.
Intelligence gathered about people-smugglers is likely to be handed over to Turkish coast guards to allow them to combat the traffickers more effectively, rather than having the Nato alliance act directly against the criminals, Nato diplomats said.
Nato and the EU are eager to avoid the impression that the 28-nation military alliance is now tasked to stop refugees or treat them as a threat.
Greek and Turkish ships will remain in their respective territorial waters, given sensitivities between the two countries, and any refugees saved by Nato vessels will be returned to Turkey.