The UK military is to join Nato forces intercepting and returning people trying to reach Europe from Turkey, as David Cameron prepares to meet European leaders to discuss the escalating migration crisis.
The vessel, which carries a Wildcat helicopter, will join naval vessels from Germany, Canada, Turkey and Greece as part of Nato’s first intervention in the migration crisis.
The announcement came several hours after another boat carrying people sank with the loss of 25 lives including at least three children. Fifteen people were rescued after the boat capsized near the Turkish resort of Didim.
It comes as European leaders come under increasing political pressure at home to stem the flow of refugees and migrants. Turkey hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, and has warned that tens of thousands more who have fled a Syrian government advance on Aleppo were seeking to join them.
Greece, as the first point of entry for most people seeking asylum in Europe, is under concerted pressure from European governments to do much more to halt the influx of refugees and migrants from Turkey.
The buildup of refugees in Greece escalated on Sunday as regional officials spoke of a humanitarian crisis on the country’s northern border where 14,000 men, women and children were estimated to be trapped as a result of Macedonia sealing the frontier.
As the EU’s chief immigration policymaker, Dimitris Avramopoulos, predicted some 100,000 migrants and refugees would reach the country this month alone, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s leftist-led government demanded Europe share the burden of handling the crisis. About 3,000 people are landing on Greek shores from Turkey every day, officials say.
“Europe is in the midst of a nervous crisis, primarily for reasons of political weakness,” Tsipras told top officials in his Syriza party on Sunday. He slammed the decision of eastern European and Balkan states to tighten restrictions, a move that has left close to 35,000 people stranded in Greece.
The UK ship set to join the effort in the Aegean is expected to start operations in the coming days. It will spot smugglers taking migrants to Greece and pass information to Turkish coastguards so they can be intercepted.
Two Border Force cutters will also join the operation, along with a third boat – the chartered civilian vessel VOS Grace – which is already in the Aegean.
They will be under the command of the German-led Nato patrol which sent three warships to the area three weeks ago in a rapid deployment.
In a statement, Cameron said: “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.
“That’s why this Nato mission is so important. 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.”
Greece and Turkey have agreed that any people they intercept will be sent back.
Cameron will on Monday join counterparts from European Union nations and Turkey at an emergency summit in Brussels.
The EU executive has announced the first payouts from a £2.3bn fund meant to help Turkey cope with the influx of refugees.
Agency reports have claimed that EU leaders will urge Turkey to agree to “large scale” deportations of 100,000 “economic migrants” from Greece.
The Turkish prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, will be pressed to take back migrants who do not qualify as refugees.
Meanwhile, Greek police officials said Macedonian authorities are only allowing those from cities they consider to be affected by war to cross the border from Greece. That means people from cities such as Aleppo in Syria, for example, can enter, but those from Syria’s capital Damascus or the Iraqi capital Baghdad are being stopped.
There have been concerns that a strong naval presence in the Aegean might encourage more people to attempt to reach Europe, as there would be a greater chance of being picked up in the event of boats sinking.
More than 400 people have died so far this year trying to cross the sea to Europe and nearly 10 times as many refugees and migrants crossed in the first six weeks of 2016 compared with the same period last year.
In the UK, Cameron is facing pressure from one of his backbenchers and the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, about the prospect of Turkey joining the EU.
David Davis, the former shadow home secretary, highlighted concerns raised by Europol that more than 5,000 EU nationals have been radicalised by fighting with Muslim extremists in Iraq and Syria. He claimed many have returned home, warning that admitting Turkey could make the problem worse.
“Giving visa-free access to people carrying Turkish papers will, if anything, make worse the security threat identified by Europol. This demonstrates only too clearly why our membership of the EU, far from improving our security, actually puts it at greater risk,” he said.