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NATO Orders Ships Into Aegean Sea To Aid Migrant And Refugee Crisis

NATO on Thursday ordered a naval force to move immediately to the Aegean Sea to help end the deadly smuggling of migrants between Turkey and Greece. In this photo from last June, a Greek coast guard vessel arrives carrying migrants at the port of Mytilene, Greece, after a rescue operation.
Thanassis Stavrakis

Saying a maritime force will contribute "critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that the alliance has ordered ships to the Aegean Sea, a focal point for smuggling migrants and refugees from Turkey to Greece.

The mission will include both naval ships and aircraft and will start "without any delay," Stoltenberg said.

In the Aegean, the Standing NATO Maritime Group's mission will not be "about stopping or pushing back refugee boats," Stoltenberg emphasized at a news conference in Brussels on Thursday.

NATO's defense ministers agreed to the step, Stoltenberg says, with the goal of both limiting crimes such as human trafficking and preventing the loss of life in the refugee crisis. Earlier this week, more than two dozen people died when their ship capsized shortly after embarking from Turkey's coast.

In the first six weeks of 2016, more than 76,000 migrants and refugees have arrived in Europe by crossing parts of the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration, which adds that more than 400 people have died on those routes.

"The daily average of nearly 2,000 arrivals is nearly 10 times the daily average of a year ago," according to IOM.

Stoltenberg said that in addition to the new step, NATO will continue trying to "address the root causes" that have prompted millions of people to leave countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to seek better lives in Europe.

The most famous victim of that treacherous journey is Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy whose lifeless body was found on a beach after a capsizing that also killed his mother and brother. Two people accused of human trafficking are now going on trial in Turkey over that catastrophe.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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