NATO Will Send Ships to Aegean Sea to Deter Human Trafficking

NATO Will Send Ships to Aegean Sea to Deter Human Trafficking

12 February 2016

BRUSSELS — With more than a million migrants having reached Europe in the last year and many more on the way, NATO stepped into the crisis for the first time on Thursday, saying it would deploy ships to the Aegean Sea in an attempt to stop smugglers.

But while the hastily made decision reflected the growing urgency of the situation, it was not clear that it would have much practical effect on the flow of refugees fleeing Syria’s five-year civil war: The alliance said it would not seek to block the often rickety and overcrowded migrant vessels or turn them back, and military officials were scrambling to determine precisely what role their warships would play.

NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said that “this is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats.”

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Gen. Philip M. Breedlove of the United States Air Force, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, subsequently told reporters here that his staff was figuring out the rules of engagement and how to deal with refugee boats that are intercepted.

“This mission has literally come together in the last 20 hours, and I have been tasked now to go back and define the mission,” General Breedlove said. “We had some very rapid decision making, and now we have to go out to do some military work.”

Adding military muscle to what has largely been treated in Europe as a humanitarian issue reflected concerns across the Continent that further waves of refugees are likely to head toward Greece and beyond in coming weeks amid intensified fighting in Syria and improving weather.

Some international aid groups quickly criticized the NATO decision. Doctors Without Borders described it as shortsighted and misplaced. “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?” the group said in a statement.

Calling on NATO to help patrol the Aegean was first raised as a possibility on Monday during talks between Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, whose country is the main destination for the migrants reaching Europe, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, which is confronting a new mass of refugees along its border with Syria.

Officials said three NATO vessels, from Canada, Germany and Turkey, were being deployed to the Aegean Sea under the command of Jörg Klein, a German rear admiral. The group will focus on monitoring the waterways and on providing intelligence to the European Union. There was no indication that any vessels from the United States would participate directly in the effort.

NATO will also enhance its surveillance of the Turkey-Syria border, monitoring the movement of migrants and the activities of smugglers, officials said.

Ivo H. Daalder, a former American ambassador to NATO, said the military alliance had refrained from direct involvement in the migrant crisis before because European Union officials had insisted that they were handling the situation.

The European Union has a border agency,Frontex, but it lacks substantial resources and in essence relies on national authorities, like the Italian Navy and the Greek Coast Guard. It failed to prevent the deaths of 3,800 people who drowned in the Mediterranean last year while trying to enter the European Union, and more than 400 have drowned this year already.

“The E.U. obviously wasn’t doing enough, and NATO can do more,” Mr. Daalder, now the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said in a phone interview. “Clearly, the U.S. supported it.”

He added, “This is not the solution to the migrant and refugee crisis, but it represents an acknowledgment that not enough is being done to address the crisis.”

NATO, like the European Union, operates by consensus. Jeffrey Rathke, a former American diplomat and NATO official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the announcement reflected the reality that “Frontex is not able to cope with the situation” and that the United States and Turkey, which are members of NATO but not of the European Union, could do more.

“Could and should NATO have done this earlier?” he asked. “I’d say yes — but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do this now.”

The American defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, said that three NATO members — Germany, Greece and Turkey — had asked NATO for help with the sea patrols, as they struggle to deal with the huge number of refugeeswho have fled violence in Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq, as well as Syria and other conflict-torn countries. They have been joined by migrants fleeing poverty in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, many of them ineligible for political asylum.

The NATO defense ministers “tasked NATO military authorities to provide its advice for options for implementing it,” Mr. Carter said, calling the human traffickers “a criminal syndicate which is exploiting these poor people.”

NATO has a track record of search-and-rescue and antipiracy efforts, but whether it can actually curb human traffickers in this case remains to be seen. While the migrants typically rely on people smugglers for help in getting to Turkey and then across the sea to Greece and onward to northern Europe, they are often determined to make the voyage alone despite the risks — and the people running the smuggling rings are rarely on the vessels they send toward Greece.

“The people piloting the ships from Turkey to Greece are relatively low-level people,” Mr. Rathke said. “But having Turkey and Greek vessels, led by Germany, will provide an opportunity for greater cooperation which, frankly, hasn’t functioned well to date.”

Ian O. Lesser, a foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the announcement was “in some sense symbolic, but also meaningful: NATO’s strategy in the years ahead is going to be driven not only by what’s happening in the east, with Russia, but also in the south, with the Mediterranean, as a result of the chaos in the Middle East and North Africa.”

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Also on Thursday, the German government said it would extend controls on its borders for an additional three months. Germany established patrols, notably along its southern border with Austria, in mid-September because about 13,000 people were arriving in the southern city of Munich every day.

Although the number of arrivals has since dropped by half, the German government is still struggling to find shelter for all of the new ones, while bracing for more.

“A lasting and clear relaxation of the influx of people from other countries into Germany that would be necessary to lift the temporary border controls is not foreseeable at this time,” the Interior Ministry said on Thursday, adding that it had coordinated with Austria and its other European partners.

The German government also agreed on Thursday to permit the family members of refugees who had entered the country as unaccompanied minors to enter the country in cases of particular hardship. The agreement allows family reunifications only when “urgent humanitarian reasons” justify the granting of asylum to the children’s parents.

In the Aegean resort town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Thursday, the trial of two Syrians, Muwafaka Alabash and Asem Alfrhad, opened. They are accused of causing the drownings of a 3-year-old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, and of four other migrants, including the boy’s mother and brother, in September. Images of the boy’s lifeless body lying facedown on a beach in Bodrum helped focus world attention on the crisis.

The two men each face up to 35 years in prison if convicted of charges of human smuggling and causing the deaths of five people “through deliberate negligence.”


This article originally appeared in the New York Times 12 Feb 2016. Michael S. Schmidt reported from Brussels, and Sewell Chan from London. Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin, and Rick Gladstone from New York.