ABOARD THE FGS BONN (AP) — A multinational NATO maritime force deployed to the Aegean to help stop the smuggling of migrants from Turkey to Greece has aided in reducing the flow into Europe, in a large part by helping to bridge historic animosities between the two countries, the flotilla's commander said.
The seven-ship flotilla was ordered to the Aegean in February after NATO approved a joint German, Turkish and Greek proposal, with a mandate to carry out reconnaissance patrols to help the coast guards of Greece and Turkey.
Though both are NATO members, the two countries have longstanding disputes in the Aegean concerning the limits of their territorial waters and airspace, which had hampered efforts to stop smugglers bringing migrants to Europe.
They're both now contributing ships to the NATO flotilla — with Greek ships sticking to Greek waters and Turkish ships to Turkish waters — while the vessels from other nations including Britain and Germany are patrolling both.
"What we've observed here in the past few months is a clearly improved, a really visibly improved cooperation between the forces deployed here in the territorial waters," said German Rear Admiral Joerg Klein, who holds the rotating command of the force known as the Standing NATO Maritime Group 2.
"We have always had Greek and Turkish officers in the command ship. They are very professional officers who understand one another very well, work very well with each other, but naturally represent their national positions."
At some points in the Aegean, Greece and Turkey are separated by less than 2 kilometers, which made the route the most popular maritime migrant route into Europe last year with more than 850,000 crossings, compared to about 150,000 in the central Mediterranean.
So far this year, 194,611 migrants have arrived in Europe by sea, including 156,157 by the Aegean route, according to a report Friday by the International Organization for Migration. Some 376 have died along that route, while 1,093 have died in the central Mediterranean, where two boats sank this week off the coast of Libya.
Despite the NATO patrols, which have been operating for about three months, the Aegean route continues to be the most popular for migrants, though numbers have been steadily declining with 12,358 reported in April compared to 27,358 in the same month of 2015.
"Naturally the drastic reduction of the number of migrants who are making it to the Greek islands today is above all else the success of political decisions and strategic measures, but with our mission we're also playing a part," Klein told reporters aboard the flagship FGS Bonn during a short cruise around Izmir harbor.
Klein refused to specify how many ships had been spotted, saying any number would be meaningless without comparisons. Crewmembers said the flotilla spotted smugglers' boats almost daily.
Unlike the EU Operation Sophia, whose ships are tasked with boarding, searching and seizing boats in the central Mediterranean, the NATO force makes no contact with smugglers' vessels, instead reporting them to either the Greek or Turkish coast guards. Of the seven ships available at least three are on patrol at all times, and the mission has been slowly expanded south from the waters off the Greek island of Lesbos to other islands, including Chios, Samos, and Leros.
The NATO ships can rescue migrants if they are in need of emergency help, but so far that has not been necessary. Meantime, every boat spotted by NATO so far has been intercepted, thanks to rapid reactions from Greece and Turkish coast guards, Klein said.
On a political level, however, Greece and Turkey remain at odds, even over the mission. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras last said month saying Ankara was hampering the mission by not allowing NATO warships to operate in the south Aegean; an accusation Turkey denied.
Klein said that the fact that the ships aren't allowed into the south Aegean has had little effect, however, as initial worries that the deployment in the north might force smugglers south hadn't come to pass.
Suzan Fraser in Ankara contributed to this story