On February 11, 2016, Canada sent HMCS Fredericton as part of a three ship squad to the Aegean. The objective of the mission has been described as to “help end the deadly smuggling of migrants between Turkey and Greece.”
Canadian and other NATO country efforts to stop “human smuggling” across the Aegean Sea traps refugees where their lives are in danger. According to the International Organization for Migration, over 409 refugees have died already in 2016 in trying to cross from Turkey to Greece in their attempted journeys to Europe.
Refugees make their perilous voyages by sea because their lives are in greater danger at their points of origin. They are fleeing for their lives. Rather than assisting them in their efforts to find safety, NATO’s mission will force refugees to make the journeys more complex and dangerous. They will still try to find a way.
As explained by Aurelie Ponthieu, humanitarian adviser for Doctors without Borders, “NATO’s involvement in the ‘surveillance of illegal crossings’ is dangerously short-sighted. People will continue to risk their lives in search of safety and protection, no matter the obstacles that the EU — and now the leaders of the NATO alliance — put in their way.”
What is human smuggling?
“Human smuggling” is generally a misleading term. It conjures the idea of refugees being exploited by others who are in some way coercing them into illegal journeys. Actually, human smuggling refers to every situation where refugees and migrants obtain the services of others to transport them illegally to their desired destination, no matter how desperate the journey, no matter what the price. Any time someone voluntarily makes a journey from one country to another, pays for it, and does not obtain legal approval for entry to their destination, they are being smuggled.
Quite often, refugees and migrants are themselves involved in administering these journeys. In other words, refugees are frequently their own “smugglers.”
A term often used interchangeably – and irresponsibly – with smuggling is “trafficking.” This term refers to the situation where people are involuntarily being moved.
The NATO anti-smuggling mission and its contradictions
Jens Stoltenberg, NATO secretary-general, explained that the anti-smuggling operation’s purpose as, “helping Greece, Turkey and the European Union with stemming the flow of migrants and refugees and coping with a very demanding situation.”
Stoltenberg gives misleading and contradictory messages. In the same media report, he makes the statement, “NATO will contribute critical information and surveillance to help counter human trafficking and criminal networks.”
The report, like many others on this subject, attempts to associate the human struggle of people taking matters into their own hands to find safety on the one hand, with criminal activity, and possible slavery, on the other. This is no slip of the tongue, but a deliberate effort to negatively colour the journeys of people fleeing for their lives in order to validate tighter immigration controls.
NATO with Canada’s support is pushing back refugee boats
Stoltenberg told the media that, “This is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats.” This statement is completely absurd. That is precisely the mission’s overall objective.
Asaf Rashid is an organizer with Refugees Welcome Fredericton.