NATO to launch refugee mission to crack down on smugglers

NATO launches refugee mission to crack down on smugglers, alliance will send military vessels to Aegean Sea

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a news conference during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium February 10, 2016

NATO defence ministers on Thursday said the alliance will send military vessels to Turkey and Greece to assist the countries on cracking down on criminal networks smuggling refugees into Europe.

NATO at a meeting in Brussels took on the subject for the first time with an objective to help the areas in tackling the worst refugee influx since WWII.

Although the plan is still to be detailed by NATO generals, member states are likely to use ships to work with Turkish and Greek coastguards 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 Defense 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," Carter said.

The number of refugees fleeing war and poverty mainly in the Middle East and North Africa, show little sign of falling, while the bad weather conditions makes the sea crossings even more dangerous.

A 3 billion euro ($3.4 billion) deal between the EU and Turkey to help Syrian refugees and fight against human smuggling has yet to have a significant impact.

Germany said it would take part in the NATO mission along with Greece and Turkey, while the United States, NATO's most powerful member, said it fully supports the plan.

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.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday agreed to ask NATO to provide “observation and surveillance mechanisms” on the Syrian border and in the Aegean Sea, where smugglers are risking refugees’ lives in the perilous crossing to Greece.

Of the more than 1.1 million refugees who arrived in the EU last year, more than 850,000 arrived by sea to Greece, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Over the course of the year, 805 people died in the Aegean. Through the first six weeks of 2016 more than 76,000 people arrived by sea in Europe, according to the IOM. The daily average of nearly 2,000 arrivals is nearly 10 times the daily average of a year ago.

Turkey has kept an open-door policy for civilians fleeing Syria due to the conflict, but has come under pressure by Europe and the US to stem the flow and to secure the border more tightly.

The country already shelters nearly 2.7 million Syrians, the world's largest refugee population.

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