Refugee crisis: What can NATO do and may solve

NATO’s Standing Maritime Group 2 is currently deployed in the region and will be tasked to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance of illegal crossings in the Aegean. It will also establish a direct link with the European Union’s border management agency, Frontex.  In general, do you think that NATO should/will play a bigger role in efforts of solving the refugee crisis or not and why? Read few comments.

Andrea Frontini, Policy Analyst, European Policy Centre (EPC), Juliane Schmidt, Junior Policy Analyst at the EPC

NATO’s decision to help ‘stem the flow’ of refugees in the Aegean Sea comes as an ultimately political move by the Atlantic Alliance, which serves different purposes. Firstly, it seems to be meant to signal the Alliance’s reinforced attention to Europe’s Southern neighbourhood, and should also be read in conjunction with the NATO Defence Ministers’ resolution to support the US’s fight against ISIS more boldly, notably via the use of NATO-owned AWACS to that effect. In that light, the Alliance’s ‘Aegean pivot’ is also part of a somewhat challenging balancing act between the Eastern and Southern ‘fronts’ of its current security policies in and around Europe, especially after the Ukrainian crisis has pushed NATO to re-position itself as the ultimate guarantor of the territorial defence of its Eastern European Member States, partially to the expense of its external projection elsewhere, including – potentially, at least, and not necessarily in the forms witnessed in its 2011 Libya air campaign – in the Southern neighbourhood. At a more ‘intra-NATO’ political and operational level, the decision also aims at appeasing the different but parallel concerns by Germany and Turkey about the increasingly difficult management of refugee flows from the Southern neighbourhood to Europe, both in its internal and external dimensions. At the same time, the move also intends to re-vitalise, although on different grounds, the long-standing and poorly visible ‘Active Endeavour’ operation launched by NATO allies back in 2001.

While the political rationale of such a move is relatively clear and understandable, whether it can really deliver its stated goals remains to be seen. A number of uncertainties, spanning from force-generation to the legal and operational complexities of the mandate – notably in the case of encounters with distressed migrant boats in the Aegean Sea – still loom large on the future outcomes of this decision. Overall, while NATO’s involvement can provide a temporary solution to some of the security risks related to human smuggling, the rationale for this step does not seem to be security-related, but is rather based on managing migratory flows. Despite its valuable capabilities, NATO is not a border management agency like EU’s FRONTEX. What is needed, in fact, is a longer-term and more effective policy response through stronger intra-European cooperation in maritime border management and surveillance, and search and rescue tasks, among others – something that the European Union has started developing already, although still with insufficient results. More broadly, Europe at large needs to engage further with the international community in order to tackle the root causes of the phenomenon in the countries of origin and transit, and this is where NATO can and should have a crucial role to play, along with other players including the EU, the UN and regional actors. Without doing so, today’s NATO decision risks to provide another modest palliative to a much greater problem.

Christian KaunertProfessor of International Politics, Director of the European Institute for Security and Justice, University of Dundee

It seems it might be possible that NATO will play a bigger role in fighting smuggler in the Aegean. I am not entirely convinced that this will necessarily help the situation significantly. There is a chance it might make it more difficult for people to cross into Greece, so in that respect, it might be beneficial. However, it will not fundamentally change the fact that ever more people in Syria are being made into refugees, most notably by the latest bombing of the Russians of Aleppo. So, overall, I doubt that it will reduce the migration flows significantly. If anything, it might divert them a little bit, maybe reduce the flow into Greece, but instead increase other flows. But we will have to wait and see. There is also a risk that the operation contributes significantly to securitising refugees, presenting them as security threats by using the military against them!

Artur GruszczakCentre for European Studies, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

NATO is not predestined to tackle the ‘soft’ security challenges, such as refugee inflow to the EU. None of hitherto strategic concepts and summit declarations have directly addressed the issue of massive migration or refugee flows. NATO’s Emerging Security Challenges Division has not dealt with these problems either. However, once the refugee crisis is going to be seen in terms of risks and threats to national security of the member states, NATO could be involved in managing it as an international crisis. If so, this engagement would be rather secondary, i.e. entailing monitoring and surveillance of migration routes, intelligence exchange, or logistical support for national (or multilateral) actions conducted by governments of the Allies. The real issue is whether the North Atlantic Council is ready and willing to take unanimously a decision on militarizing the refugee crisis. I deeply doubt it but I do not rule out a situation that a member state will try to invoke Article 4 of the Washington Treaty and consult the position of the resting countries on the refugee problem.

Ioannis MichaletosPolitical & Security Analyst, Associate at Institute for Security and Defence Analysis

I think that the refugee/immigration crisis has become a high-level political-diplomatic issue nowadays and that only similar type of resolutions are needed. NATO is military organization and not specialized to committ resources, especially on short notice.

Moreover NATO faces the problem that it has to intervene essentially between the EU and Turkey (which is also a NATO member) thus no important solution can be found. I estimate that also NATO leaership is not willing to interfere as well, in a time where there are multiple challenges for it (i.e. Middle East Ukraine). Thus we cannot expect something of importance in that respect.


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