Nato sails to block migrant EU access

Nato is sailing to the Aegean before it has agreed on the nature of its mission. Source: Wikimedia

Nato ships are sailing to the Aegean Sea to help Turkey and Greece prevent criminal gangs smuggle refugees into Europe, the alliance’s commander has announced.

Defence ministers from member states agreed to use their maritime assets in the waters between Turkey and Greece and within hours Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove said he was designing the mission. “We are sailing the ships in the appropriate direction,” Breedlove told the media, adding that the nature of the mission would be more clearly defined by the time they reached the eastern Mediterranean in about 24 hours.

The plan, which was first raised on Monday by Germany and Turkey who have been holding top-level talks, took the 28-nation military alliance off guard. It is due to help the EU handle a movement of refugees not seen since World War Two. Unlike the EU’s maritime mission off the Italian coast, which brings migrants to Europe rather than sending them back to unstable areas of North Africa, Nato forces will return migrants to Turkey regardless of whether they are picked up in Greek waters.

Britain’s defence minister Michael Fallon said it was a significant change in policy. “They won’t be taken to Greece and that’s a crucial difference,” he said.

Greece and Turkey, despite long-standing disagreements over Cyprus, are both Nato members. Greek and Turkish vessels would not enter each other’s waters so as not to enflame sensitivities between the two rivals, it was announced. Nato would also start to monitor the Turkish border with Syria for people-smugglers, said its Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“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 said. “Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had … That is the principal intent of this.”

A €3 billion (US$3.4 billion) deal between the EU and Turkey to block the flows of migrants has yet to have a significant impact. Germany said it would take part in the Nato mission and the US said it fully supported the plan. Breedlove said Nato allies would need to contribute to sustain the mission over time.

Denmark is expected to offer a ship and the Netherlands may also contribute. “It is important that we now act quickly,” German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said.

Intelligence on traffickers would be passed to the Turkish coastguard to allow it to combat the traffickers, rather than leaving Nato to apprehend the gangs, diplomats said.

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