They came on bicycles. Late last year, thousands of refugees – mostly from Syria – pedalled their way across a remote Arctic Circle border crossing from Russia to Norway.
They were taking advantage of a legal loophole which until recently allowed refugees on two wheels – not two legs – to enter my home country from the North.
In making the journey, they became part of a vast and continuing exodus.
The events of the last twelve months – the greatest migrant and refugee crisis since the Second World War – represent an immense human tragedy.
Last year, close to a million people risked their lives to find safety on European shores. Of those, almost 900,000 people risked the so-called Eastern Mediterranean route – that’s more than the entire population of Amsterdam, and five times the number who made the same journey in 2014.
Enabled by criminal gangs, the flow of migrants and refugees is putting enormous pressure on the countries affected. So far this year, more than eight out of every ten refugees and migrants who have crossed from Turkey into Greece came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are already hosting millions of refugees.
NATO has been attempting to deal with the root causes of this instability for many years. Our longstanding mission in Afghanistan is helping to deny terrorists a safe haven. We have helped to build the 350,000 strong Afghan security forces, and continue to train, advise and assist them. We will soon begin to train Iraqi military officers. And we stand ready to provide AWACS planes to backfill the national capabilities of our allies, freeing up countries’ own AWACS aircraft for operations elsewhere. All 28 NATO allies are part of the Global Coalition against ISIL, and this will increase the coalition’s ability to degrade and destroy the terrorist group.
Earlier this month, NATO also decided to provide support to the international efforts to stem illegal trafficking and illegal migration in the Aegean. Based on a proposal by our allies Germany, Greece and Turkey, the decision was taken practically overnight. Within the following 48 hours, we deployed a Standing Maritime Group to the Aegean. It currently includes ships from Canada, Germany, Greece and Turkey.
They will conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance activities to provide critical information to the Greek and Turkish coastguards and other relevant national authorities, as well as to the European Union’s border agency Frontex. This will help them carry out their duties even more effectively, in order to help save lives and to deal with the illegal networks that traffic in human suffering. We have also decided to intensify intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance along the Turkish-Syrian border.
NATO ships will not do the job of national coastguards in the Aegean. Their mission is not to stop or turn back those trying to cross into Europe. And this in no way represents a militarisation of the response to the crisis.
What NATO does will be in a support role. It will be conducted with full respect for national sovereignty and in close cooperation with relevant national authorities. Our added value is that we can facilitate closer cooperation and assist in greater exchange of information between Greece and Turkey, as both are NATO Allies, but only Greece is in the EU.
At the same time, NATO is working closer, and faster, than ever before with the EU. So NATO has a unique role to play as a platform for cooperation. This crisis affects us all, so we have to find common solutions.
If NATO vessels need to rescue people or boats at risk – something we have done many times in the Mediterranean in recent years – they will do so in full accordance with international law.
The obligation to help people in distress at sea is a general responsibility which applies to all vessels, regardless of whether they are part of a NATO or a national mission. In case of rescue at sea of persons coming via Turkey, they will be taken back to Turkey. In carrying out their tasks, our nations will abide by national and international law.
We do not underestimate the complexity of the challenge ahead. We understand that this crisis has been years in the making and that there is no quick fix. But to ignore the situation would be to ignore the values on which the Alliance itself is founded – and I am proud of NATO’s efforts to help our allies and the EU to address one of the most pressing issues of our time.
Mr. Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, is Secretary General of NATO.
The author is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. This opinion-editorial was published in newspapers belonging to LENA (Leading European Newspaper Alliance)
L. J. De Rothschild