The NATO mission was put in motion after receiving U.S. backing from Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter.
The flotilla would put NATO ships on the front lines in combating smuggling operations from NATO-member Turkey that enabled more than 1 million migrants to enter the European Union last year — setting off humanitarian and political crises across Europe.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg directed NATO maritime forces to immediately begin moving toward the eastern Aegean. NATO ally Greece has struggled to deal with the nonstop flow of migrants and refugees — many fleeing violence in Iraq and Syria.
“It is important to respond swiftly because this crisis effects us all,” Stoltenberg said.
Migrants continue to try the risky journey to islands in Greece, also a NATO ally, despite frigid waters that have claimed dozens of lives in recent weeks.
Speaking in Brussels, Carter commended requests from Turkish, Greek and German authorities to create a joint-maritime mission that would patrol the eastern Aegean Sea. The U.S. endorsement was seen as crucial to the plan’s viability.
“This is people’s lives and destinies at stake here and it’s important to act quickly,” Carter said.
Under the plan, three NATO vessels are to be tasked with reconnaissance and surveillance of known illegal trafficking routes in close cooperation with the European Union as well as Greek and Turkish coast guards.
Stoltenberg added that other NATO countries are looking to assist with the operation in the coming months.
“This is not about stopping and pushing back refugee boats,” Stoltenberg said. The aim, he said, was to counter criminal activity.
Stoltenberg said the new agreement ensures that Greek and Turkish forces will not operate in each other’s territorial waters.