Prime Minister David Cameron pledged Monday to send a British naval ship, an armed helicopter and three border-control boats to bolster NATO forces in the Aegean Sea, as he urged Europe to focus on stopping migrant traffickers.
The continent has been struggling with a surge of migrants and asylum seekers, with more than 1 million people reaching its shores last year. Most of them have made their way from Turkey to Greece and on through the Balkans to northern Europe.
"This migration crisis is the greatest challenge facing Europe today," Cameron said in a statement. "Where we can help, we should."
"We've got to break the business model of the criminal smugglers and stop the desperate flow of people crammed into makeshift vessels from embarking on a fruitless and perilous journey," he added.
Britain will send the Mounts Bay naval landing ship and a Wildcat helicopter to help identify those smuggling migrants from Turkey to Greece and to pass "the information to the Turkish coast guard so they can intercept these boats," Cameron's office said.
Their efforts will be supported by three boats from the British border force.
Cameron said the mission provides "an opportunity to stop the smugglers and send out a clear message to migrants contemplating journeys to Europe that they will be turned back."
NATO started patrolling the Aegean Sea at the end of February, with four frigates initially assigned to the mission - one each from Germany, Canada, Turkey and Greece.
France announced last week that it too would commit a ship to the military alliance's operation, while the Netherlands is also expected to participate.
The NATO vessels are supposed to conduct reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance activities, intervening only if a migrant vessel is in distress.
"NATO ships are not in the Aegean Sea to stop or push back boats with migrants and refugees," the head of the military alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, told journalists in Brussels on Monday.
"NATO ships are there to help Turkish and Greek authorities and [the European Union's border agency] Frontex in their efforts to cut the lines of human trafficking and criminal networks," he added.
At first, the NATO vessels sailed only in international waters, but from Monday started operating in Greek and Turkish territorial waters. Hopes are high that their presence will deter migrant crossings.
"We need the capacity of NATO in order to prevent new refugees, children dying in such an adventurous journey," Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said during a visit to the alliance's headquarters in Brussels.
On Monday afternoon, the 174-metre German vessel Bonn entered the narrow passage between the Turkish coast and the Greek island Lesbos, a spokesman for the German Defence Ministry said. The ship has some 210 soldiers on board.
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