NATO Tries to Lend a Hand with the European Migrant Crisis

NATO Tries to Lend a Hand with the European Migrant Crisis

Tim Peel, MJIL Staff Member

NATO recently agreed to provide support to the growing European migrant crisis by providing a small fleet of ships to patrol the Aegean.[1] However, the intent of the assistance is not to stem the flow of migrant ships reaching European shores, but to contribute “critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”[2]

Europe has seen a surge in migration caused by domestic crises in war-torn countries such as Syria, and ongoing civil unrest in other parts of the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans.[3] The International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 1,000,000 migrants reached Europe in 2015 by sea,[4] while approximately 4,000,0000 refugees from Syria alone registered for asylum in neighboring Turkey between April 2011 and November 2015.[5]

The arrival of such large numbers of migrants has placed enormous strain on countries already struggling to recover from the Eurozone crisis.[6] Some European Union member states have agreed to take on significant numbers of refugees, with Germany and Sweden leading the way,[7] while others oppose migrant relocation quotas or have opted out of EU relocation programs altogether.[8] But, even for those countries that had demonstrated a more welcoming stance towards migrants, the welcome appears to be waning, particularly following a series of sexual attacks on women linked to migrants, such as those in Cologne, Germany.[9]

As Europe struggles to deal with the crisis, migrants themselves have also frequently been the subjects of poor treatment with numerous reports of physical abuse,[10] squalid living conditions,[11] and even forcible returns of migrants to their country of origin in contravention of international law.[12]

While under these circumstances the EU is likely to welcome any help it can receive, it is unclear whether NATO’s sea patrol will have any significant impact. As one report notes, the networks involved in trafficking migrants to Europe are not necessarily criminal or formally organized.[13] Further, the networks are typically multinational and “ever-changing”, with the migrants having little contact with the organizers, making those responsible particularly difficult to track.[14] Consequently, rather than causing a significant disruption to migrant smuggler networks, a more plausible role for NATO’s fleet is to rescue migrants who find themselves in dire straits while attempting to cross the Aegean.[15] Given the number of migrant deaths over the past year,[16] this may represent a small boon to migrants en route to Europe, but does little for those already there and for the countries trying to deal with their arrival. As a former US ambassador to Europe stated at the close of a recent interview on this issue: “this is not a solution to the problem. This is one modest effort that needs to be part of a much larger effort to deal with this refugee crisis both from the origin . . . and how to deal with them when they are, in fact, coming into Europe.”[17]

In other words, Europe will need to keep looking for a solution.

[1] Nato Defense Ministers Agree on NATO Support to Assist with the Refugee and Migrant Crisis, (Feb. 11, 2016, 1:14 PM),

[2] Id. (quoting the NATO Secretary General).

[3] Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe Explained in Graphics, (Jan. 28, 2016), (stating that the migrant influx is driven by unrest in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Kosovo).

[4] See International Organization for Migration, Mediterranean Update Migration Flows Europe: Arrivals and Fatalities, (Feb. 8, 2016),

[5] See Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe Explained in Graphics, supra note 3.

[6] See Helena Smith, Greece Struggling Under Weight of Migrant Influx, Guardian (Apr. 24, 2015, 12:29 PM), (stating that the “debt-stricken country mired in its worst crisis in modern times, [with] budgets stretched to the breaking point as Athens desperately tries to keep afloat . . .”) (alteration in original).

[7] See Migrant Crisis: Migration to Europe Explained in Graphics, supra note 3.

[8] Henry Samuel, EU Migrant Quota Plan in Tatters After France and Spain Join British Opposition Telegraph (May 19, 2015, 4:08 PM),; Rick Lyman, Eastern Bloc’s Resistance to Refugees Highlights Europe’s Cultural and Political Divisions, N.Y. Times (Sept. 12, 2015),

[9] See Mary Bowerman, 18 Asylum Seekers Linked to New Year’s Eve Attacks in Cologne, (Jan. 8, 2016, 4:32 PM),; Nesrine Malik, The Migrant Bogeyman Is Back, Guardian (Jan. 14, 2016, 3:00 AM),

[10] See, e.g., Michael Pearson, Migrant Crisis: More Troubles in Hungary as Austria, Germany Near Tipping Point, (Sept. 7, 2015, 5:06 PM), (reporting 340 attacks on migrants in Germany); Mark Lowen, Turkey ‘Acting Illegally’ over Syria Refugees Deportation, (Jan. 15, 2016), (reporting physical abuse of migrants in Turkey).

[11] See, e.g., Naina Bajekal, The 5 Big Questions About Europe’s Migrant Crisis, (Sept. 9, 2015), (noting that migrants and refugees are living in squalid conditions in makeshift camps).

[12] Lowen, supra note 10.

[13] Mark Rice-Oxley & Peter Walker, Europe’s Worsening Migrant Crisis – The Guardian Briefing, Guardian (Apr. 20, 2015, 2:17 AM),

[14] Id.

[15] NATO to Deploy Warships Between Greek Islands and Turkey, (Feb. 11, 2016, 6:39 PM),

[16] See International Organization for Migration, supra note 4.

[17] NATO to Deploy Warships Between Greek Islands and Turkey, supra note 15.