On the second Sunday of every month, a group of Irish antiwar and human-rights activists hold monthly protest vigils at a small airport on Ireland’s West coast.
A stone’s throw from the Atlantic ocean, Shannon Airport is a small but key transport hub into the west and south of Ireland. The fact that it is located just a kilometer away from residential homes means that its more controversial use is also clearly and loudly on display. Omni Air International troop carriers park at the designated Gate 42 at the end of the terminal building. Travelers mingle with American troops in uniform inside the airport as they wait to board flights. Military planes like the distinctive gray Hercules C-130 aircraft are also easy to spot, parked a short distance from the terminal building and often waiting with a detail from the Irish police and Irish Defence Forces.
It’s estimated that about 2.5 million US troops have passed through Shannon since 2002. Now, as Europe struggles to deal with the flow of refugees making treacherous journeys from countries torn asunder by war and sectarian violence, the activists from Shannonwatch, an anti-war activist group, along with some independent opposition MPs have once again tried to spur on the debate over the use of the airport.
Shannonwatch grew out of activist-led protests against the US military use of Shannon, which began in 2001 in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, when the Irish government offered the use of the airport to the US government. The protests have continued since then, with Shannonwatch officially forming as an organization in 2008. The group itself is relatively small and does not use a formal membership structure, but garners strength through collaborating with other groups, including the Peace and Neutrality Alliance.
During a recent debate over the response to the refugee crisis in the Irish parliament, opposition MP Mick Wallace called on the government to accept that it facilitates the wars that lead to humanitarian crises.
“The refugees don’t come from nowhere. We allow Shannon to be used for the US military to go and bomb their homes and create refugees…. We facilitate it,” he said. “We are allowing arms to go through Shannon to Saudi Arabia, who are bombing the living daylights out of Yemen—and no one seems to give a damn because the US is involved.”
The scale of the refugee crisis has taken Europe by surprise, highlighted rifts between states, and left political leaders scrambling. More than 590,000 people have crossed into the European Union by sea in 2015 alone. Last week, up to 85 boats were arriving daily on the Greek island of Lesbos, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. With great difficulty, the EU managed to approve a plan to divide 160,000 asylum seekers among its 28 member states—but this does not even begin to fix a problem that requires a far broader international response. Germany is struggling to receive the roughly 10,000 refugees arriving every day, with officials expecting the figure to top 1 million people by the end of the year. By contrast, under political and media pressure, Ireland has committed to taking 4,000 people over a two-year period.