NATO ships are making their way to the Aegean Sea to help Turkey and Greece crackdown on criminal networks smuggling refugees and migrants into Europe.
The alliance’s top commander said he was working quickly to design the mission, just hours after defence ministers agreed to use their maritime force to help combat traffickers.
Although the plan is still to be detailed to NATO generals, the allies are likely to use their ships to work with Turkish and Greek coastguards and the European border agency Frontex.
“As part of the agreement, Greek and Turkish armed forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters or airspace,” said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary-General.
The plan, which was first raised only on Monday by Germany and Turkey, took NATO by surprise and is aimed at helping the continent tackle its worst migration crisis since World War Two. More than a million people arrived last year.
Germany said it would take part in the NATO mission along with Greece and Turkey.
The United States, NATO’s most powerful member, said it fully supported the plan.
“There is now a criminal syndicate which is exploiting these poor people. And so this is an organised smuggling operation and targeting that is, I think, the way that the greatest effect can be had in the humanitarian dimension,” said Ash Carter, US Defence Secretary.
Intelligence gathered about people smugglers will be handed to Turkish coastguards, to allow them to combat the traffickers more effectively – rather than having NATO act directly against the traffickers, according to diplomats.
NATO and the EU are keen to avoid the impression that the military alliance is now tasked to stop refugees or treat them as a threat.
Speaking from outside NATO headquarters in Brussels, euronews reporter Andrei Beketov said: “NATO says its mission will be limited with information gathering. It doesn’t want its soldiers or sailors to be seen herding families into refugee centres. The Secretary General didn’t answer a question over whether they would rescue sinking boats.”