- Germany to lead 3-ship force in waters between Greece, Turkey
- Allies to focus on surveillance, won't stop or send back boats
NATO agreed to start a naval mission to track refugee boats in the eastern Mediterranean Sea in response to a plea from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
A German warship will lead the task force in the Aegean Sea, monitoring the route to Greek islands used by refugees from the Mideast as a stepping stone into western Europe. Any intervention against human traffickers would be made by the Greek and Turkish coast guards.
While falling short of a full-scale attempt to seal off Greece’s shores, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization mission may provide some relief to Germany and neighboring countries in northern Europe besieged by more than 1 million migrants last year and girding for a comparable number in 2016.
“This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Thursday. “NATO will contribute critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”
Refugees trekking from Greece through the Balkans to richer countries north of the Alps have strained social services and inflamed anti-Muslim sentiment. The political costs could be highest for Merkel, who is retreating from an open-door policy that has depressed her approval rating to the lowest in 4 1/2 years. The German Interior Ministry said on Thursday that, with no end to the refugee influx in sight, it was extending temporary controls on the border with Austria imposed last September for another three months.
Stoltenberg said the current three-ship force will be sent to the Aegean “without delay” and will be bolstered eventually by several more.
“This will be pure situational awareness,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said. “There was political unity, great support from all the allies. And I’m confident that it will take place quickly.”
Military planners will work out whether to go beyond surveillance and give the task force the power to use force against operators of smuggler boats. NATO will also step up monitoring of refugees crossing into Turkey from Syria.
Maritime border disputes between Greece and Turkey -- historic rivals, but as NATO members officially allies -- complicate the policing of the Aegean Sea. Warships from the two countries would stay in their own waters as part of the NATO mission.
Greece, under criticism from northern Europe for lax border controls, highlighted the NATO decision to send refugees rescued at sea back to Turkey. Defense Minister Panos Kammenos said: “There is full respect of Greece’s borders and sovereignty by all partners.”