BRUSSELS (AP) — In a dramatic response to Europe's gravest refugee crisis since World War II, NATO ordered three warships to sail immediately Thursday to the Aegean Sea to help end the deadly smuggling of asylum-seekers across the waters from Turkey to Greece.

"This is about helping Greece, Turkey and the European Union with stemming the flow of migrants and refugees and coping with a very demanding situation ... a human tragedy," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Yet even after the ships were told to get underway, NATO officials acknowledged uncertainties about the precise actions they would be performing — including whether they would take part in operations to rescue drowning migrants.

The arrival of more than a million people in Europe in 2015 — mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans — has plunged the 28-nation European Union into what some see as the most serious crisis in its history.

Despite winter weather, the onslaught of refugees crossing the Aegean has not let up.

The International Organization for Migration said this week that 76,000 people — nearly 2,000 per day — have reached Europe by sea this year and 409 of them have died trying, most drowning in the cold, rough waters.

The number of arrivals in the first six weeks of 2016 is nearly 10 times as many as seen during the same period last year.

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