12 February 2016

NATO will provide support to ‘assist with the refugee and migrant crisis’ by deploying three warships in the Aegean Sea to target people-smuggling operations. The announcement followed a request from Germany, Greece and Turkey at a defence ministers’ meeting in Brussels yesterday.

A German-led patrol, backed by monitoring planes, will be tasked to ‘conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings in the Aegean’, according to the alliance. It will also establish a direct link with the European Union’s border management agency, Frontex.

“The goal is to participate in the international efforts to stem the illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

The NATO Secretary General stressed that this mission is ‘not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,’ but about contributing critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.’ As part of the agreement, NATO will cooperate closely with national coastguards and the EU.

Greek Minister of Defence, Panos Kammenos, said this would ensure ‘that the migrants that will be arrested will be directly sent back to Turkey.

It remains unclear whether and how the surveillance ships will operate if people will try to cross from Turkey to Greece, both members of the 28-nation alliance. British defence secretary, Michael Fallon told the Guardian that ‘the aim of the group is to have them taken back to Turkey. That is the crucial difference.’

Kris Pollet, ECRE’s Acting Secretary General, said: “If this NATO operation would result in returning those intercepted and rescued in the Aegean to Turkey without a proper individual assessment of their protection needs, than this would institutionalise the pushback policy that has been firmly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights as unlawful. NATO and the EU need to be clear what the true aim of the operation is and ensure that access to international protection is guaranteed.

“As ECRE argued before, Turkey cannot be considered to be a safe third country under EU law in light of its geographical limitation to the Geneva Refugee Convention and of evidence that the rights of migrants and refugees are currently not respected in practice in Turkey, including reported instances of Syrian refugees being forcibly returned to Syria,” Kris Pollet said.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin of 12 February 2016. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.