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Units of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 conduct drills as part of NATO's participation in the international efforts to cut the lines of illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean Sea, Feb. 20, 2016.

Units of Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 conduct drills as part of NATO's participation in the international efforts to cut the lines of illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean Sea, Feb. 20, 2016. (Courtesy of NATO)

British warships will soon join an expanding NATO mission in the Aegean Sea, where alliance vessels are conducting reconnaissance and surveillance operations aimed at blocking the smuggling of migrants between Turkey and Greece.

On Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the Royal Navy had dispatched the Mounts Bay — an amphibious landing ship — as well as two border force cutters.

“This migration crisis is the greatest challenge facing Europe today,” Cameron said.

The decision came one day after NATO announced that it was expanding its mission in the Aegean into the territorial waters of Greece and Turkey, where NATO ships will coordinate closely with national coast guards and the European Union border control agency FRONTEX.

NATO defense ministers agreed in February to launch the mission in response to a joint request from Germany, Greece and Turkey, all nations burdened by the rise of illegal trafficking across the Aegean.

NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 is leading the mission, which is focused exclusively on information-sharing.

The NATO ships, armed with powerful radars and helicopters, can monitor hundreds of miles of water, but NATO ships will not be involved in thwarting boats carrying migrants. That task will fall to local water-policing authorities.

“The purpose of NATO’s deployment is not to stop or push back migrant boats, but to help our allies, Greece and Turkey, as well as the European Union, in their efforts to tackle human trafficking and the criminal networks that are fueling this crisis,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement Sunday.

NATO’s Maritime Command also agreed to work more closely with the EU’s FRONTEX at the operational and tactical levels, allowing both groups to share information in real time.

The dangerous sea route between Turkey and Greece has been a heavily trafficked route for migrants anxious to reach Europe, but the journey is fraught with risks. During the past year, hundreds of people traveling on rickety boats have died on the trip, which often is arranged by smugglers charging hefty fees.

As of February, 1,800 migrants were arriving daily in Greece, with more than 116,000 coming across the Aegean so far this year. The massive flow, which has created Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, is being driven by wars in Syria and Iraq and insecurity in Afghanistan, where insurgents continue to battle government troops.

After a meeting at NATO headquarters Monday, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said his country faces numerous challenges along its border with Syria, including terrorism and humanitarian issues. NATO now faces a “turning point of history” as it confronts such challenges, said Davutoglu, who welcomed NATO’s role in the Aegean.

“There is a huge crisis and threats coming from our southern border, and there is a need of solidarity among allies,” Davutoglu said. “This is a humanitarian operation, not a military operation.”

Cameron said allies must break the illegal trafficking business model, which is helping to fuel the crisis, with criminal smuggling gangs “exploiting people and putting lives at risk every day.”

On Monday, EU leaders were meeting in Brussels along with Turkey’s prime minister to discuss the migrant crisis. EU leaders will be discussing increasing aid to Greece, where thousands of migrants are stuck since Macedonia severely limited the number of people it will allow to cross the border. The EU also will try to persuade Turkey to reduce the flow or migrants and to take back those not deemed to warrant refugee status.

The NATO mission is “an opportunity to stop the smugglers and send out a clear message to migrants contemplating journeys to Europe that they will be turned back,” Cameron said.

vandiver.john@stripes.com

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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