23rd Mar 2018

Nato to join EU warships in Libya migrant operation

  • EU warships in the Mediterranean have picked up thousands of migrants trying to make the risky crossing (Photo: EEAS)

Nato warships and, potentially, drones are to help the EU control migrant flows across the Mediterranean in what critics have called the “militarisation of a humanitarian crisis”.

Nato head Jens Stoltenberg unveiled the new project, to be called operation Sea Guardian, on the last day of a summit in Warsaw on Saturday (9 July).

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  • Migrant flows shifted back toward Libya and Italy after the EU shut the Greek-Balkan corridor (Photo:

“We have decided to transform operation Active Endeavour into a broader security mission called Sea Guardian”, he said.

"We intend to work closely with the European Union's operation Sophia in the central Mediterranean, building on our swift and effective cooperation with the EU to cut lines of international human trafficking in the Aegean”, he said.

Speaking more broadly about the terrorist threat to Europe and the migration crisis, he added: “The scale of the task requires that we undertake joint efforts”.

Active Endeavour is an old Nato mission that was launched after 9/11 to protect shipping in the Straits of Gibraltar from terrorist attacks.

Sophia is an EU naval mission, launched last year, to stem the flow of migrants from Libya to Italy.

Stoltenberg’s mention of the Aegean refers to Nato’s decision, in February, to send seven warships to help stop migrant boats going from Turkey to Greece.

Sea Guardian

Nato officials said it was too early to publish details on when Sea Guardian would start work, what assets it would have, and what it would do.

But according to Nato literature, Active Endeavour was composed of Greek, Italian, Spanish and Turkish warships as well as Danish, German and Norwegian patrol boats.

A Nato source told EUobserver that Nato's new drones would “very likely” play a role in Sea Guardian.

The Western alliance, outside the summit venue in Warsaw, put on display one of the five Global Hawk machines that it recently bought from US firm Northrop Grumman and that are designed to start operations at the Sigonella air base in Italy in 2017.

They fly at high altitudes for up to 30 hours, covering areas larger than 100,000 square km, and transmitting almost real-time images.

The Warsaw summit declaration said Nato was ready to help Sophia on “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” as well as “capacity building of the Libyan coastguard and navy”.

With the Islamic State jihadist group active in Libya, a separate Nato press statement said that Sea Guardian would “have a broad scope, including providing situational awareness, countering trafficking and terrorism, upholding freedom of navigation and contributing to regional capacity building”.

Stoltenberg and Nato leaders, such as British PM David Cameron, said the joint EU-Nato operations in the Aegean had helped to reduce the number of people crossing from Turkey from 2,000 a day to fewer than 70 per day.

The steep drop is mainly based on an EU-Turkey deal under which Turkey stops migrants from embarking and takes them back from Greece.

Militarisation of misery

Leading NGOs have voiced strident criticism of Europe’s handling of the migration crisis, with some, such as Doctors Without Borders, boycotting EU funds in protest.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch on Saturday attacked the new Nato operation.

“Nato’s involvement in migration control signals a dangerous shift toward militarisation of a humanitarian crisis”, the organisation’s Judith Sunderland said.

She urged the EU to “expand safe and legal routes to Europe”, adding: “Nato help for EU operations should avoid trapping people in lawless and violent Libya, either through forced returns or asking Libyan forces to send people back”.

US leader Barack Obama, speaking on Saturday, said that migrants are good for Europe’s economy and that German chancellor Angela Merkel “deserves enormous credit” for taking in hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

“It's economics 101 - if you’ve got a younger population, your growth rate is going to be higher, and immigrants are strivers and they work hard”, he said.

He added that the “huge influxes of the sort that we've seen in Europe - that's always going to be a shock to the system”.

“It's a strain on the budget. It's a strain on politics. It's a strain on culture. It's legitimate for them [EU leaders] to say: ‘Look, we’ve got to slow this thing down. We’ve got to manage it properly’,” he said.

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