NATO's Mediterranean Mission

What the Alliance is Doing in the Aegean Sea

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

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