Operation Triton: Irish Naval Service personnel from the LÉ Eithne rescuing migrants, 15 June 2015

On 19th September 1946, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called for Franco-German reconciliation while delivering a speech at the University of Zurich. It was a highly impactful call following the horrific events of the second World War, the effects of which were still very fresh and palpable around the planet. Churchill also used his speech to call for the ‘United States of Europe’.

The terrors of the conflict, the loss of life and economic devastation and emerging details of the harrowing treatment of many minority groups, which had not yet been recognised as genocide, all led to people unanimously wishing to do everything in their power to ensure the events of the preceding five years were never repeated. European countries uniting forces economically and in an agreement to maintain a standard of human rights seemed to be the best way to achieve certain and long-lasting peace. Since 1946, history saw the creation of many European organisations and co-operations, perhaps the most influential being the European Union, an organisation that became a fundamental part in the history and development of the continent, and the organisation’s individual member states, making the EU an international superpower. For decades the organisation provided the continent with security and ensured prosperity, growing in size.

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Recent years have seen the European Union face new challenges, one of the prominent ones being the rise of right-wing sentiment and increasingly anti-european rhetoric among the political parties of its member states. One of these countries has been Britain, currently facing Brexit, which promises to leave the country in economic torment. Another challenge occupying the EU has been the migrant crisis, which in several instances intertwines with the issue of growing nationalism. It is the worst refugee crisis in the continent’s postwar history. The origins of the crisis can be traced back to 2015, when the number of people looking to enter EU territories through the Mediterranean increased significantly. In 2016, over 360,000 people fled their home-countries in an attempt to enter the EU. The number has decreased over the following years. The majority of people are coming from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East, mainly to escape dangers they would face if they stayed at home, and a select few going over for economic reasons.

The organisation of these journeys is undertaken by illegal smugglers, many of whom charge individuals exorbitant amounts for places on their boats. Due to the illegality of the crossings, many migrants end up at higher risk of exploitation upon arrival, as they do not have the documents needed to receive legal employment and are sometimes threatened with being reported. Many boats depart from the Libyan coast before entering European borders. The journeys are carried out in inadequate boats, with very little food or water. High numbers of individuals perish during the journey from dehydration and hunger, many people drown if the boats malfunction or experience conditions they are not equipped for.

While people are aware of the risks, they still choose to undertake these journeys as they often consider the threat of staying to be worse. High numbers of minors end up on the boats as parents who are unable to afford several places often choose to only send their children. This influx of people has put pressure on the Union and its individual members. The EU, realising the dangers awaiting the arriving migrants back home, has tried to accommodate as many people as possible by getting its individual members to volunteer and accept refugees into their borders. Over time however more states became increasingly concerned about the high numbers of refugees.

The growing pressure on the EU to respond to its individual states’ concerns about growing numbers of migrants has led it to seek a solution at the border. It has signed a deal with Libya, agreeing to provide funding from the EU’s general budget, as well as ships and training, for the improvement of Libya’s coast guard to intercept smugglers’ ships at sea before they reach European coasts. Libya is a member of the European Neighbourhood Policy, which allows the EU to fund all regional and bilateral cooperation with all European regional partners.

Approximately 15,000 refugees and migrants from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan were returned to Libya last year. Once returned, smugglers and migrants are placed in Libyan detention centres. The centres are formally run by the Interior Ministry’s Department for Combating Illegal Immigration (DCIM), which is perceived as a threat to national security. The Global Detention Project notes that there seem to be ‘no legal provisions regulating administrative forms of immigration detention’ and points out the need for the creation of legal framework that would be in line with international human rights standards. There is also no adequate method for data collection, which makes it difficult to follow the number of people in detention centres.

Italy and the EU continue to make deals with Libya, despite the world becoming increasingly aware of Libya’s failure to implement sound protections for migrants in detention centres. Reports of abuse and very poor conditions in those centres date back to 2005, when the former Director of the Italian Secret Service testifying to the Italian parliament said ‘undocumented migrants in Libya are caught like dogs’ and placed in overcrowded facilities that are in such poor states that ‘policemen must wear a dust mask on the mouth because of the nauseating odours.’ Countless reports have emerged over the years of horrific abuses carried out in the detention centres, the most recent dating back to late February, when around 150 detainees reportedly escaped their detention centre to protest mistreatment with the DCIM. 30 people were reportedly taken to an underground cell and tortured under suspicion of organising the protest. Six of those thirty are believed to be minors. Several eye-witness accounts detail men being separated from women and beaten until four people lost consciousness.

The International Rescue Committee, an organisation that provides medical assistance in the center, confirmed that two people were hospitalised following those events. The EU has long opposed the existence of said detention centres, and claims to bring up the issue at every meeting with relevant Libyan authorities. Matteo De Belis, a spokesperson for Amnesty International, expressed his dissatisfaction with European states and institutions at not taking any ‘decisive action’ that would help bring about the end of Libyan detention centres. The centres sparked international outrage in recent years when the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported the emergence of Libyan slave markets. Despite the continuing arrival of reports of abuse in detention centres, the EU has continued to provide Libya with funding.

The EU has taken other steps to stop migrants and smugglers entering its borders. It aims to curb the sale of rubber boats to Libya to decrease the number of smugglers. It has also introduced a programme called SEAHORSE, which aims to establish a network between the governments of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and six Mediterranean EU states to tackle illegal migration and illegal trafficking by improving its surveillance systems.

Meanwhile, individual European states have differed in their levels of acceptance of migrants. From the beginning of the crisis German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on her countrymen to accept the high number of refugees entering, taking 745,545 asylum applicants in 2016. The growing popularity of right-wing sentiment however has affected Germany as well, resulting in lower confidence and pressure to lower the number of refugees being accepted.

Others have been less welcoming from the beginning. Italy, which due to its geographical location has seen a very high number of people try to enter Europe through its borders, was apprehensive from the beginning, but has become increasingly active in trying to minimise the number of entrants. June 2018 saw Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Interior Minister, turn away MS Aquarius, a ship carrying 629 refugees, 100 of whom were reportedly children. Other similar instances of Salvini turning away boats have continued to occur since.

The hardline refusal to welcome refugees has been reflected in other European countries, such as Hungary. This is despite Hungary’s plummeting population, rising labour shortages and widespread emigration. Viktor Orban has announced plans to increase the Hungarian population by providing numerous and generous incentives to families to have more children. He has continued however to maintain a strongly anti-immigration position.

Over the years of its existence, the EU has undoubtedly much improved the lives of citizens of its member states, increasing trade and economic prosperity, diversifying education and labour markets and introducing laws and regulations that improved the safety and quality of products within the market. It has also so far been successful in ensuring peace and cooperation among Europe, as well as creating a powerful international body. However, the increases in right-wing sentiments and the lack of concern towards those fleeing the horrors that the creation of the EU was meant to prevent, is cause for alarm. When arguing for the creation of an organisation like the EU, Churchill recalled the League of Nations, acknowledging its similar intent and its apparent failure. He noted, however, that ‘the League did not fail because of its principles or conceptions’, but that ‘It failed because those principles were deserted by those states which brought it into being’.

When it comes to welcoming in people fleeing from horrific circumstances, the European Union can do better than have individual states shift responsibility onto others and finance partners that fail to ensure basic human rights of those people are protected. Perhaps europeans just need a reminder of their roots.