NATO expands anti-trafficking mission to territorial waters of Greece & Turkey

Migrants onboard an EU border agency Frontex boat arrive at the port city of Mytilene on Lesbos island, Greece, March 5, 2016 © Hannibal Hanschke
NATO has announced the expansion of a mission aimed at tackling human trafficking to the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea. The alliance is also going to boost its cooperation with EU border agency FRONTEX.

“NATO took swift decisions to deploy ships to the Aegean Sea to support our Allies Greece and Turkey, as well as the EU's border agency FRONTEX, in their efforts to tackle the migrant and refugee crisis,” the alliance has announced, clarifying that the activity of vessels already conducting monitoring in the Aegean Sea “will now be expanded to take place also in territorial waters.”

The NATO statement stressed that the aim of the operation is not just to push back migrant boats but to help Turkey and Greece in their efforts to “tackle human trafficking and the criminal networks” that are fueling the ongoing refugee crisis.

“We will do reconnaissance, we will do surveillance, we will collect information, and share this information in real time with the Turkish coast guard, the Greek coast guard and with FRONTEX, helping them with managing the migrant and refugee crisis, and also to cut the lines of the illegal trafficking and smugglers,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in interview with AP.

The alliance is also going to boost its cooperation with EU’s border agency “at the operational and tactical level”, where the bodies will be able to “exchange liaison officers and share information in real time” as well as “take action in real time.” The statement added that such cooperation is “an excellent example of how NATO and the EU can work together to address common challenges.”

NATO launched its mission in the Aegean Sea on February 11, sending three ships – the German navy flagship the Bonn, and two other vessels, the Barbaros from Turkey and the Fredericton from Canada. Later a Greek ship joined the mission while France announced its will also send a vessel.

Last month WikiLeaks released a classified report detailing EU military operations aimed at cutting refugee flows into Europe. The document prepared by Rear Admiral Enrico Credendino of the Italian Navy for the European Union Military Committee and the Political and Security Committee of the EU contained a call on responsible EU bodies to help speed up the process of forming a “reliable” government in Libya which is expected to give permission for EU forces to operate in Libyan territorial waters as well as onshore.

The European Union hopes a Monday summit with Turkey will also help put an end to the uncontrolled influx of migrants in Greece with Ankara agreeing to take back migrants in its waters and those who reach Greek islands but fail to qualify for asylum in Europe.

Last week, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) estimated that more than 122,000 asylum seekers had arrived in Greece via the Mediterranean Sea in January and February, more than in the entire first half of 2015. Tens of thousands migrants are stuck in limbo and in need of accommodation following recent border closures by Macedonia, Austria and other countries on the route north from Greece.