UK sends boats to Aegean Sea ahead of EU migrant crisis summit

Story highlights

  • The RFA Mounts Bay, two cutters and a helicopter are heading to the Aegean Sea
  • Their goal, Cameron says, is "to break the business model" of smugglers
  • Leaders are set to discuss the migration crisis at an EU-Turkey summit

(CNN)The British military is deploying boats and a helicopter to the Aegean Sea as part of stepped up NATO efforts to stop smugglers and stem the flow of migrants heading to Europe.

The move comes as leaders are set to meet at an EU-Turkey summit in Brussels on Monday to discuss the region's migration crisis.
    "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," British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a statement announcing the deployment of the RFA Mounts Bay, two cutters and a Wildcat helicopter.
    The vessels will participate in an operation "that aims to reduce the flow of migrants from Turkey to Europe" by spotting smugglers and sharing information with the Turkish coast guard, the statement said.
    The Aegean, a stretch of the Mediterranean separating Turkey and Greece, is the main route used by traffickers bringing migrants into Europe.
    On Sunday, NATO announced it was expanding its mission in the Aegean Sea to include Greek and Turkish territorial waters.
    "The purpose of NATO's deployment is not to stop or push back migrant boats, but to help our allies Greece and Turkey, as well as the European Union, in their efforts to tackle human trafficking and the criminal networks that are fueling this crisis," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.
    Europe is struggling to respond to a massive influx of migrants. A record 1.2 million people registered for asylum in the European Union in 2015, more than double the number of the previous year, the EU's statistics agency Eurostat said last week.
    Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis accounted for more than half of the first-time applicants, Eurostat said.
    The International Organization for Migration estimates that 134,905 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe so far this year. The organization estimates that more than 400 have died making the dangerous journey.
    Last month, ministers from countries along the main Balkan migration route through Europe -- Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia -- agreed to tighten border controls to slow arrivals to a trickle.
    European Council President Donald Tusk said last week that consensus is emerging about how to handle the crisis.
    Some human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have criticized the approach European leaders are taking.
    "EU efforts to address the refugee crisis have focused on ensuring that refugees and asylum-seekers remain in Turkey, instead of sharing the responsibility for their protection and assistance," the organization said in statement last week.
    On Monday, Cameron described the migration crisis as "the greatest challenge facing Europe today."
    "That's why this NATO mission is so important," he said. "It's an opportunity to stop the smugglers and send out a clear message to migrants contemplating journeys to Europe that they will be turned back. That's why the UK is providing vital military assets to work with our European partners and support this mission."
    The Mounts Bay will join ships from Canada, Germany, Turkey and Greece as part of the NATO mission, the British government said.