NATO ships will be deployed to the Aegean Sea to conduct “reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance” to deter human traffickers from smuggling refugees to Greece, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said, during a press briefing Thursday. The decision is based on a joint request by Germany, Greece and Turkey.
“NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 is currently deployed in the region under German command. It will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of the illegal crossings in the Aegean Sea in cooperation with relevant authorities,” Stoltenberg said. “As part of the agreement, Greek and Turkish armed forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters or air space.”
According to an estimate by the International Organization for Migration, over 70,000 refugees — fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa — have arrived in Greece this year after crossing the Aegean Sea. Over 300 people have died while attempting to undertake the risky journey, for which they have to rely on people smugglers.
Intelligence gathered about people smugglers will be handed over to the Turkish coast guard, and the NATO forces will not act directly against the criminals, NATO diplomats reportedly said Thursday.
“Turkey is on the front line of this crisis and this will complement the NATO assurance measures for Turkey which we decided in December,” Stoltenberg said. “It is important to respond swiftly, because this crisis affects all of us.”
The announcement comes at a time when Turkey — which struck a deal with the European Union in November to help stem the flow of refugees into Europe in return for 3 billion euros ($3.4 billion) in funds — has visibly hardened its stance on the issue.
On Thursday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hit out at the 28-member EU over its lack of clear policies to deal with the crisis, and threatened to flood the bloc with millions of refugees.
“We do not have the word ‘idiot’ written on our foreheads. We will be patient but we will do what we have to. Don't think that the planes and the buses are there for nothing. We will do the necessary,” Erdoğan reportedly said, while speaking at a business forum in Ankara.