Three military vessels from NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 have been ordered to “start to move now” and head for the Aegean sea to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance operations, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday.
“This is about helping Greece, Turkey and the European Union with stemming the flow of migrants and refugees and coping with a very demanding situation,” Stoltenberg said, describing the situation as a“human tragedy.” Stoltenberg also said that the alliance’s forces would be monitoring the land border between Syria and Turkey for people smugglers.
“This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” he added.“NATO will contribute critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”
If the NATO maritime mission saves any drowning refugees, it will send them to Turkey, unlike the EU mission that takes the rescued asylum seekers to Greece, Reuters reported.
The German navy flagship the Bonn, and two other vessels, the Barbaros from Turkey and the Fredericton from Canada, will take part in the mission. More ships are expected to join later in order to carry out the task more effectively.
A ship from Denmark is also expected to move to Greece, a German government source reported. The Netherlands is also considering the possibility of participating in the mission.
Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove laid out the plan several hours after NATO’s defense ministers approved the use of military vessels in the problem region.
“This mission has literally come together in the last 20 hours, and I have been tasked now to go back and define the mission. We had some very rapid decision making and now we have to go out to do some military work.”
The plan is still to be finalized by NATO generals, but it’s quite likely that the member states will cooperate with the Turkish and Greek coast guards and Frontex, the European Union’s border agency.
Germany has expressed its readiness to take part in the NATO operation.
“It is important that we now act quickly,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said.
The US, the block’s most powerful member, has said it fully supports the plan, but hasn’t taken any steps to become a participant yet.
“There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people and this is an organized smuggling operation,” US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said.
“Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had … That is the principal intent of this,” Carter added.
At least 244 refugees drowned trying to cross the Aegean Sea in January alone. Nearly 37,000 migrants have arrived in Italy and Greece by sea since the beginning of last year, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) statistics showed.