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The refugee crisis in Europe continues to deepen, with knock-on effects around the world. Recently, NATO sent warships to the Aegean Sea in a very opaque manoeuvre – what could be the real intent of this? And what are the implications for the fleeing refugees?

In an alarming development that illustrates how Europe is adopting police and even military solutions to what it sees as its "migrant crisis" – and reflects the real underlying world crises – Nato has sent warships to the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey.

This decision, not even hinted at publicly until the eve of a meeting of Nato defence ministers on 11 February, was implemented overnight. Within twenty hours, one ship each from Germany, Turkey and Canada was in place. Two or three other warships are expected to join them, perhaps from Greece, the UK and Denmark, a country proud of its Viking heritage, whose ships once plundered this sea, and that now plunders asylum seekers' personal possessions.

Even more alarming than the presence of these warships in the Aegean is the degree to which their mission has been left deliberately murky.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told the media that "this is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats." Nato Supreme Commander in Europe, General Philip Breedlove, whose position reflects the United States’ domination of the alliance, said that deploying the ships was a political decision and defining their mission remains part of the "military work" yet to be done.

What these ships are not being sent to do is save people from drowning, as more than 800 did in the Aegean last year and 409 in the first five weeks of 2016 alone, according to the International Organization for Migration. In cases where volunteers have tried to help boats reach Greece safely (for instance, firemen from Italy), they have been arrested.

Mare Nostrum, the Italian operation in the Mediterranean which in 2013-14 rescued 150,000 migrants in danger of drowning, was cancelled because it was deemed to "encourage" people to leave North Africa for Europe in tiny boats. It was replaced by Operation Triton, conducted by Frontex (the EU border police) using patrol boats with no room for passengers or provisions for emergency medical care. People plucked out of the cold water remained on deck and many died of exposure before reaching land. Thousands more died unrescued because the operation was designed to keep them from Europe's shores, and to do little if their boats capsized out at sea.

Then Germany, whose population is ageing and shrinking despite the absorption of half a million immigrants from ex-Yugoslavia, announced its willingness to take in a million Syrians. But now the doors are swinging shut again. Placing the blame on anti-immigrant public opinion that has been carefully stoked through events like the New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne, “better dead than here” is the attitude being taken toward many human beings escaping wars and other crises for which the European and North American countries are largely responsible, indirectly and even directly; especially in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, from where the greatest number of refugees are now fleeing.

The vessels currently operating in the Aegean on what is being advertised as a "patrol" are not patrol boats. So far the flotilla consists of a large (170-metre) combat support ship and two combat ships (frigates). While Nato officials have tried to give the impression that the flotilla was sent to "provide intelligence to the European Union," this does not explain the choice of ships designed for coastal warfare instead of simply relying on aerial surveillance, which in fact is being stepped up as part of this operation. (The New York Times, 12 February 2016, is the source of all the misleading statements quoted above.) What "intelligence"? Everyone knows that people are pouring into Europe through these waters and the governments want to stop them.

The mission is definitely not aimed at "human traffickers", "a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people," as US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, German Defence Minister Urusla von der Leyen and Nato-friendly media outlets claimed. (Deutsche Welle, 11 February 2016) Most people entering Europe are not being trafficked into slavery, or trafficked in any real sense at all. They are escaping. It is intolerable that this difference is deliberately ignored by the world's biggest exploiters, the powers whose human trafficking slave ships plied the seas and filled the oceans with the bodies of kidnapped Africans whose only escape was death. This went on for hundreds of years as they began to accumulate the capital that allows them to dominate the world today.

Yet while people crossing the Mediterranean have so far been acting on their own, as individuals, and even collectively, they are reacting to desperate choices largely imposed on them by the workings of the imperialist capitalist system itself. The immense flood of fleeing human beings in the world today, estimated at 60 million, is far more the result of compulsion than a question of individual decisions. Whether or not some entrepreneur – whose morals are at worst no different than, say, Western bankers – sells them a rubber dingy is not going to change that situation. If the West really wanted to help people, they would send ferries to bring them safely across the waters, just as the US and Europe, when it suits them, routinely send ships to evacuate their citizens trapped in war zones – as people in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and many other places surely are.

Quiet political events leading up to the sudden Nato decision shed light on the shadowy political manoeuvring. On 7 February, German Chancellor Angel Merkel and French President Francois Hollande dined together and came up with a "roadmap" for radically reducing the number of people now entering Europe. (Le Monde, 11 February 2016). Some of it is to be presented at an upcoming EU meeting, but much of it is already being implemented. Greece has been given three months to re-establish its sea borders or be thrown out of the Shengen group of European countries, which was supposedly set up to guarantee free travel through most of the continent. Of course, Germany, Sweden and other countries have now largely closed their border, flaunting the Shengen agreement.

The great difficulty in getting out of Greece now, due to European border closings, has turned that country, especially the islands near Turkey, into what a UN official called "the world's largest open air detention centre." The EU pushed for the establishment of euphemistically called "hot spots" in Greece and Italy. People have been detained by force in stadiums and other facilities on repeated occasions, but the main reason they have to stay in the centres now being established is that they have nowhere else to go, to eat and get out of the freezing rain – and not be beaten by rampaging anti-immigrant civilians. Greece and Italy, which gave other countries so many millions of their people for so long, are becoming the doorkeepers of Fortress Europe.

The stated purpose of these centres is to identify and register all arrivals. They are sorted out between those who could be considered candidates for asylum in Europe, basically Syrians, and those from countries declared "safe", like Afghanistan, according to Germany’s recent declaration. This decision has a particularly nasty resonance among politically aware people in Germany, who have condemned the country's continuing and now leading role in the occupation of Afghanistan under the US. Among other things, it is a hypocritical violation (better said, exposure) of Germany's post-World War 2 so-called "pacifist" constitution.

Meanwhile, according to Le Monde, Greece has agreed to ship the victims of this "sorting" back to Turkey. Turkey has agreed to accept them – perhaps everyone, even the Afghans (Duetsche Welle, 11 February 2016). In return, Turkey is to get a much quicker disbursement of the three billion euros the EU will pay it to warehouse refugees – more than a thousand euros per soul so far. Also in turn, Turkey asked for Nato to step into the Aegean, a move whose implications go far beyond the migrant question.

All this helps understand the strategic intent of the Nato flotilla, and its hasty launch, as other elements come together in an extremely volatile situation.

This volatility may explain the haziness of the Nato mission, to the degree that its tactics remain truly undefined, and not just a case of officials feeding disinformation to the open mouths of the media. It can't be considered separately from the collision between the US, Europe and Russia over Syria; nor from Turkey's extremely aggressive and precarious position as both the West's indispensable ally against Russia, and the main conduit for the arms and volunteers sustaining Islamist forces on the Syrian battleground.

Different wars and contradictions are overlapping and interacting, including what is - figuratively and not, at this time, literally - a war against "migrants", in other words, the fleeing victims. At a minimum, the naval deployment sets a new tone for the handling of the migrant ”crisis”. It may be that Nato wants to establish a physical presence in the Aegean, a "prepositioning" as its new arms depots on the Russian border are called, ready for action if sudden changes in the military situation in Syria, or Turkish and more foreign military interventions, or the crisis in Turkey itself, turn the flood of refugees into a tidal wave. What remains to be seen is how much it will actively seek to turn the Aegean into a European separation wall.

* Samuel Albert writes for A World To Win News Service, where this article was previously pubished.



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