Nato vessels have been deployed in the Aegean Sea following a decision by the alliance’s defence ministers to assist in operations against people-trafficking networks in response to the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe.
Nato’s Standing Maritime Group 2 arrived in the Aegean Sea within 48 hours of the ministers’ decision, taken two weeks ago, according to a statement on February 25 by Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Stoltenberg said that the maritime group was conducting reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance activities.
“Our ships will be providing information to the coastguards and other national authorities of Greece and Turkey. This will help them carry out their duties even more effectively to deal with the illegal trafficking networks,” he said.
Nato also was establishing direct links with Frontex, the European Union’s border agency.
“We will conduct our activities in the Aegean Sea. Our commanders will decide the area where they will be operating, in co-ordination with Greece and Turkey. Nato vessels can deploy in the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey,” Stoltenberg said.
Greek and Turkish forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters and air space, he said. Though his statement made no reference to it, the background is the years of disputes between Athens and Ankara over territory, which have resulted in frequent tense incidents about air space.
“Nato’s task is not to turn back the boats. We will provide critical information. To enable the Greek and Turkish coastguards, as well as Frontex, to do their job even more effectively,” Stoltenberg said.
“Our added value is that we can facilitate closer co-operation and assist in greater exchange of information between Greece and Turkey, as both are Nato Allies, but only Greece is in the EU.”
Stoltenberg said that the agreement also meant that we the alliance was working closer with the EU than ever before. So Nato has a unique role to play as a platform for co-operation, he said.
On the issue of search and rescue, Stoltenberg noted that the obligation to help people in distress at sea is a general, universal responsibility.
“It applies to all vessels. Regardless of whether they are part of a Nato or national mission. If Allied vessels encounter people in distress at sea, they have to live up to their national responsibility to assist.
“In case of rescue of persons coming via Turkey, they will be taken back to Turkey. In carrying out their tasks, our nations will abide by national and international law,” Stoltenberg said.
(Archive photo of a 2015 exercise by Nato’s Standing Maritime Group 2: US Navy)