A boat used by refugees and migrants to travel across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast in the Greek island of Lesbos is seen at a beach November 21, 2015.
A boat used by refugees and migrants to travel across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish coast in the Greek island of Lesbos is seen at a beach November 21, 2015.
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

February has been a busy month for NATO. During its Defense Ministers’ meeting in Brussels, NATO pledged to expand its military footprint in eastern Europe, made new commitments in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and agreed to deploy warships in the Aegean Sea to deter the people-smuggling networks that ferry migrants from Turkey into Europe. Although the first two pledges bolster NATO’s existing efforts, the Aegean operation represents an unusual and wholly new type of mission.  

NATO’s response to the migrant crisis has been met with criticism on both humanitarian and utilitarian grounds. The first critique is that military efforts to slow or reverse the refugee flow will lead to unnecessary human suffering. The second critique is that NATO’s operation will do little or nothing to deter people-smuggling, and may even encourage more of it. In fact, the operation’s humanitarian impact is unlikely to be as dire as skeptics predict. Doubts about NATO’s ability to stem illegal migration, however, will linger for some time—unless the alliance significantly expands the scope of its new mission.


Perhaps the most remarkable thing about NATO’s Aegean operation is how quickly it came into existence. On February 8, 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu announced that they would seek NATO’s help with the migration crisis, calling on the alliance to monitor the flow of smuggler ships destined for Europe. By Thursday, NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip M. Breedlove had ordered three warships from Standing Maritime Group 2 to begin patrols in the Aegean Sea. This deployment marks NATO’s first intervention the crisis, which has otherwise been managed mostly by the European Union

Because NATO’s mission is so new, there is much that is still unknown about its specifics. Its rules of engagement are still under development, as are its procedures for rescuing people at sea. NATO is likewise still determining how to differentiate economic migrants from political refugees. The broad parameters of the mission are clear, however. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg emphasized that stopping refugee ships would not be part of it. Instead, NATO would focus on deterring people-smuggling networks through intelligence and surveillance. For example, NATO will monitor migrant flows and share information with Greek and Turkish coast guards, as well as the EU border control agency, Frontex

Although NATO’s foray into the migration crisis in Europe marks a first for the organization, naval operations to monitor and interdict migrant flows are not without precedent. In 2014, the EU launched Operation Triton in the coastal waters off of Italy, followed a year later by Operation Sophia in the Central Mediterranean. Both operations were aimed at combating people-smuggling between Libya and southern Europe, and their effectiveness in this area is a subject of some debate. NATO’s mission has a more limited scope than some of these earlier efforts. But the alliance also has several advantages that the EU did not have, particularly the ability to operate in the territorial waters from which migrant ships depart.

The Eastern Mediterranean routes that NATO will target this time around are far less deadly for migrants than voyages over the central Mediterranean. For example, only one person out of 1,000 drowned while crossing the Aegean Sea in 2015, whereas 19 out of 1,000 perished when crossing from Libya into Italy. But the overall flow of migrants traveling through the Eastern Mediterranean is much greater: Frontex recorded 885,386 illegal border crossings in 2015, compared to 153,946 in the Central Mediterranean. The flow of migrants through the Aegean in January 2016 outpaced numbers from the same period last year.

A refugee prepares to hand over a toddler to a volunteer lifeguard as a half-sunken catamaran carrying around 150 refugees, most of them Syrians, arrives after crossing part of the Aegean sea from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, October 30, 2015.
A refugee prepares to hand over a toddler to a volunteer lifeguard as a half-sunken catamaran carrying around 150 refugees, most of them Syrians, arrives after crossing part of the Aegean sea from Turkey on the Greek island of Lesbos, October 30, 2015.
Giorgos Moutafis / Reuters

In addition to the sheer volume of migrant traffic, the antagonistic relationship between Greece and Turkey over the sovereignty of Cyprus and competing airspace claims has, until now, prevented a more assertive response to the migration crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. In early 2015, Greece’s Defense Minister Panos Kammenos even briefly proposed a new NATO airbase in the Aegean for the sole purpose of monitoring Turkey’s behavior. This mistrust has stunted binational coordination, with Turkey preferring to deal directly with the EU rather than the Greek coast guard. NATO’s new Aegean operation became possible only after the alliance agreed that Greek and Turkish warships would not operate in each other’s territorial waters.


Getting Greece and Turkey to buy in was only a part of the program’s challenge. Almost as soon as NATO announced the operation, it encountered skepticism and even outright condemnation on humanitarian grounds. Agnieszka Brugger, Green Party representative on the Defense Committee of the German Bundestag, has characterized Merkel’s initiative as an attempt to “cynically scare away” refugees at a time when the German government’s migration policy is increasingly unpopular with voters. Human rights activists have gone further. Günter Burkhardt, director of the German refugee support group Pro Asyl, said, “Refugees are being presented as a threat, which must be defended against with military means,” and he accused NATO of “aiding in the infringement of refugee rights.” Doctors Without Borders has urged NATO to focus on search and rescue operations, noting that “deterrence measures [...] clearly miss the point.” Vincent Cochetel, director of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) Europe Bureau, has expressed concern that efforts to combat human smuggling might “undermine the institution of asylum for people in need of international protection.” 

These humanitarian concerns are not without merit, but they tend to overstate the scope of NATO’s stated mission. The alliance has emphasized that its warships will not attempt to stop or turn away migrant boats. Rather, its role would be limited to monitoring the maritime flows of migrants from Turkey to Greece, as well as collecting and sharing intelligence on smuggling networks. In the event that NATO warships come across boats in distress, they will defer to Turkish or Greek coast guards to handle rescue missions, intervening directly only as a last resort, such as by rescuing people at risk of drowning (as required by international law). From a humanitarian standpoint, the limitation of the current NATO mission is not that it is too coercive but that it may not be coercive enough. 


The scope of NATO’s mission is similar to that of the EU’s Joint Operation Triton, which was launched in November 2014 to monitor the people-smuggling networks operating in the in the territorial waters of Italy, as well as search and rescue zones near Malta. Since its launch, Operation Triton has ferried thousands of stranded migrants from their rickety boats to safety on Italy’s shores. This experience has shown that, all else being equal, an additional set of eyes and ears on migrant sea traffic is more likely to save lives, rather than result in more deaths. 

The positive humanitarian aspects of Operation Triton suggest that NATO’s plan is unlikely to deter illegal migration and people smuggling. In fact, some worry that NATO may even encourage more migrants to make the dangerous journey. The utilitarian critique of NATO’s operation is that, by detecting and rescuing capsized boats, and transporting their passengers to European ports, NATO may only feed hopes of safe passage—regardless of how false those hopes may actually be. 

One difference between the EU’s naval operations in the Central Mediterranean and NATO’s deployment to the Aegean is that NATO will send rescued migrants to Turkey, rather than transport them to the EU. It is not clear, however, whether this policy will apply only to migrants rescued in Turkish territorial waters or whether it extends to those in international or Greek territorial waters. NATO, however, seems to recognize that an anticipated return to Turkey will be essential for deterrence.

The ability to operate in Turkish territorial waters—the origin point for migrant traffic headed toward the EU—gives NATO a key advantage over previous EU efforts. The EU’s second naval operation against people smuggling in the Central Mediterranean, Operation Sophia, was limited to international waters. The Libyan government did not authorize the EU mission to operate in its territorial waters, forcing warships to stay 12 nautical miles off of the Libyan coast at all times. NATO will not have such restrictions, as it is working within the waters of alliance members.

Although NATO will have fewer restrictions on its geographical area of operations, the scope of its mission will be more limited than that of Operation Sophia. In addition to monitoring smuggling patterns, Sophia’s naval vessels were tasked with boarding, searching, seizing, and diverting boats, as well as apprehending smugglers at sea. This effort, according to Frontex and the German navy, resulted in over 500 arrests of migrant smugglers. It is an open question whether NATO will be able to achieve a similar deterrent effect if it is unable to disrupt the path of migrant boats. NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 is certainly capable of taking on a more expansive mandate: earlier this month, SNMG2 conducted exercises with the Turkish navy that focused on maritime interdiction and search and rescue, along with more conventional air defense and anti-submarine warfare operations. Beyond the three SNMG2 vessels currently on patrol in the Aegean, NATO can easily scale up to match the force strength of Operation Sophia—six warships supported by drones and helicopters.

NATO amphibious ships participate in NATO Exercise Trident Juncture in Troia, near Setubal, Portugal November 5, 2015.
NATO amphibious ships participate in NATO Exercise Trident Juncture in Troia, near Setubal, Portugal November 5, 2015.
Rafael Marchante / Reuters


The main obstacle to an expanded NATO mission in the Aegean is political will, not military might. A limited observe and report mission made the Aegean operation an easy sell at the NATO Defense Ministers’ meeting. SNMG2 vessels were already in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the opportunity costs of additional patrols and monitoring duties in the area were relatively low. As an added bonus, the Aegean operation provided a much-needed conduit for information sharing and coordination between Greece and Turkey.

Expanding the Aegean mission from monitoring to interdiction would likely expose deeper divisions within NATO over the organization’s responsibility to ensure European border security. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has led Eastern European NATO members to question the alliance’s commitment to their national defense. A wide-scale intervention in the migration crisis would send mixed signals to these allies about the importance of their own security relative to the crises experienced elsewhere in Europe.

For its part, Washington has announced plans to quadruple its spending on European security and to add an additional brigade to its European installments. NATO has also pledged to beef up its Response Force, establish forward command centers in the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Poland, and Romania, and pre-position heavy equipment to deter a potential Russian offensive.

But this too could hamper a broader humanitarian and anti-smuggling mission in the Aegean. NATO is reasserting its more traditional mission of deterrence and territorial defense in Europe, providing fewer resources for an outsized role on other issues. Opinion surveys have shown that, compared to their civilian counterparts, Western military professionals are generally wary of any humanitarian and anti-crime efforts that could undermine the readiness and capability of armed forces to perform their core duties. The interdiction of smuggling boats, according to this view, could limit the ability of SNMG2 to monitor and respond to Russian naval activity in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. 

Senior NATO officials seem to share this skeptical view. U.S. ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute has made it clear that the refugee crisis is “fundamentally an issue that should be addressed a couple miles from here at EU headquarters.” In an interview in January, NATO Military Committee chair General Petr Pavel put it even more bluntly: “If we are to pick the more significant of the two threats”—refugees and Russia—“then a government with an exceptional military arsenal, including nuclear weapons, which unabashedly violates international agreements, undoubtedly takes the top position.”

Moving forward, NATO has two options. The first is to pursue its current limited plan of a surveillance and reconnaissance operation in the Aegean. Such an effort may help the alliance collect and share intelligence on smuggling networks, but without an interdiction component it is unlikely to have a meaningful deterrent effect. The second option is to authorize a more ambitious operation to board, search, and seize suspected smuggling ships. This effort is more likely to slow illegal migrant flows on the Aegean, but will face significant political stumbling blocks within the alliance, due to increased concerns over Russia and a wariness to intervene more forcefully into EU affairs. Since the more limited option is currently the more realistic of the two, we can expect Europe’s migrant crisis to persist for the foreseeable future.

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  • YURI M. ZHUKOV is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and a Faculty Associate with the Center for Political Studies at the Institute for Social Research.
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