NATO warships led by Germany are picking up refugees trying to cross to Greece and perceived to be in danger, only to then return them to Turkey. But Turkey, although party to this arrangement, is now refusing to co-operate, despite receiving 3 billion euros from the EU to ‘manage’ the refugee crisis and a promise that by the end of the year all Turks will be ‘visa free’ to roam Europe. The real reason that Turkey is creating this refugee ‘blockage’ is about Greek sovereignty. Turkey not only wants to extort more funds from the Euro coffers to set up more refugee ‘removal centres’, but is happy to use the refugees as a bargaining tool to try and force territorial concessions – specifically the Greek islands of Agathonisi and Farmakonisi. Meanwhile NATO is trying to defuse tensions, though recent manoeuvres, including live firing (see below) show otherwise…
UPDATE: European Parliament ministers have set a deadline of 7 March: after that date if there is no solution to the refugees crisis then a “Plan B” will see Greece cut off from the rest of Europe and Schengen suspended for up to two years (for more on this, click here).
Up until now Turkey has been ‘allowing’, if not encouraging refugees to leave its territory for Greece via the hazardous crossing of the Aegean Sea (and hundreds have died attempting). But last December the Turkish Government agreed with the EU to reverse that practice via Project Fiche and do whatever it could to stop the ‘people smuggling’. Ankara even took vast sums of money from the EU to set up and expand detention facilities used specifically as ‘removal centres’ – centres where returning refugees would be temporarily held until, according to a damning report by Amnesty International, they are returned to war zones in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the UN, since the beginning of the year 94,269 people have crossed the sea from Turkey into Greece. That figure, however, is now thought to exceed 100,000.
Turkey has insisted that the NATO naval mission would not operate in the southern Aegean as the Turkish government disputes the sea border between its southern coast and the Dodecanese islands in Greece and any co-operation between Turkey and Greece via NATO would, in Ankara’s view, undermine Turkey’s territorial claims. Greece maintains a 10-mile (16-kilometre) air space limit around its coastline and islands, but Turkey only recognizes six miles. Turkey also lays claim to a number of islands – in particular, Agathonisi (Αγαθονήσι) and Farmakonisi (Φαρμακονήσι) – which have historically formed part of Greece. NATO’s response (today) has been to say that its ships will stick to one or other territorial waters, but not weave in and out of both.
We can reveal, however, that Standing NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNMG2), composed of the flagship FGS BONN (Germany, led by Commander Jobst Berg), TCG BARBAROS (Turkey, led by Commander Mehmet Aytekin) and HMCS FREDERICTON (Canada, led by Commander Trevor MacLean) is closely coordinating with a Turkish Task Group that consists of one frigate (TCG GOKCEADA), two fast patrol boats (TCG MIZRAK, TCG ZIPKIN), a submarine (TCG ATILAY) and a corvette (TCG BODRUM). This operation was recently supported by a couple of air sorties performed by Turkish Air Force F-16 fighters. The NATO mission as a whole is headed by Rear-Admiral Jorg Klein.
Only last week, SNMG2 trained with the Turkish Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean. Following the four days port visit to Aksaz Naval Base in Turkey the ships set sail to conduct a variety of assignments supported by submarines, Maritime Patrol Aircrafts (MPA) and fighters from the Turkish Air Force.
SNMG2 and the Turkish ships conducted numerous combat enhancement trainings and force integration exercises – these included Maritime Interdiction Operations, Search-and-Rescue Operations, Air Defence exercises and coordinated Anti Submarine Warfare Operations, where a submarine operated against the surface units and a MPA. The ships also conducted a live gunnery exercise (GUNEX), where they fired on a surface target. (Hardly the manoeuvres of a search and rescue op!)
But when it comes down to whose responsibility it is to take back rescued refugees, Turkey appears to want it both ways. On the one hand it continues to insist that Greek territorial waters only extend for six miles, but on the other hand insists that refugees rescued by NATO ships or other craft within the Greek-defined 10 miles limit are the responsibility of Greece. Eva Kaili, a centre-left Greek deputy, said that Turkish warplanes routinely violate Greek airspace, with 36 violations recorded on Monday alone.
Meanwhile, this week, Hungary closed three rail crossings with Croatia, Slovenia erected a fence on its southern border with Croatia, Austria restricted its border crossings with Slovenia and Macedonia and the latter also closed its border, trapping thousands of refugees in Greece, a country bankrupted by Europe (specifically, by German bankers) and with no funds to aid the hundreds of thousands of refugees there.
Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, today commented “We will not accept turning the country into a permanent warehouse of souls, with Europe continuing to function as if nothing is happening.” He warned: “Greece will not agree to deals [in the EU] if a mandatory allocation of burdens and responsibilities among member countries is not secured.. Greece will demand the mandatory participation of EU countries in the relocation of refugees”.
Tsipras added: “We did and will continue to do everything we can to provide warmth, essential help and security to uprooted, hounded people”.