LAST YEAR, a Tory MP warned the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) that it was “risking the charity’s reputation”.
The RNLI, a volunteer emergency service that usually saves the lives of overconfident surfers or sunstroke swimmers, has also dared to defend the rescue of refugees in the Channel, as well as a foreign aid program. against drowning.
In doing so, they strayed into the British political establishment’s periodic assaults on migrants. These have escalated further as the UK government rushes through its Nationality and Borders Bill, passing a series of measures that have wreaked havoc and misery elsewhere to ‘protect’ the country from a handful people in canoes.
The government has nothing to say about cuts to legal support and staff on top of the botched outsourcing contracts that have actually messed up the UK asylum system. This is rhetoric, not substance – and creating distractions from scandals about the mismanagement of the pandemic. Ministers are not concerned with compassion, but neither are they particularly concerned with preventing forced migration.
At the end of 2019, Britain was the world’s second-largest arms exporter. The government broke its own rules to allow British companies to serve and fuel Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has claimed a quarter of a million lives and displaced millions more. An increased role for industry is seen in Britain’s ambitious Defense Review. In short, Britain continues to favor displacement and deny its consequences.
It is not just a British problem. Last month, a former EU adviser to Donald Tusk wrote a long, candid inside story about what he called “a crisis where European ideals collided with the realities of mass migration”.
Nowhere in this narrative was an attempt to question what Europe could do to tackle the causes rather than the consequences of forced migration.
The EU and its member states have taken extreme measures, ranging from criminalizing search and rescue operations to making shady deals with known perpetrators of human rights violations, to prevent migration. The possibility of a strategy that addresses both causes and consequences does not appear to have been considered.
The argument that arms sales fuel wars and wars fuel displacement is not particularly new, but we now have access to more information than ever before. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention, the Transnational Institute (TNI) this week released an open source intelligence forensic analysis on the link between arms sales and displacement, turning an argument general into an argument on specific weapons.
From the Caucasus to Central Africa, they illustrate the path taken by arms and military equipment from the assembly line in Europe to the homes from which people are driven.
In one case, Italy granted licenses to its arms industry to sell attack helicopters to Turkey and allow Turkish manufacturers to produce them locally.
The T-129 ATAK helicopter is an impressive beast, featuring advanced avionics, electronic warfare, weapons and countermeasures systems bolted to a workhorse of an Agusta Westland frame. Highly maneuverable and designed to fight in difficult weather and terrain, it sports up to 70 rockets, a pair of missiles and a 20mm three-barrel cannon.
TNI’s analysis demonstrates Turkish-Italian collaboration in the production of dozens of these machines until at least the end of 2019. In January 2018, T-129s were deployed in the region around Afrin in the north. east of Syria. Local sources reported the bombing of a poultry farm that was hosting people who fled fighting elsewhere, apparently killing two adults and five children.
Within days, sources reported thousands of people on the move, soon reaching nearly 100,000 according to UN agency OCHA. In a second operation in October 2019 involving heavy air power, including 129, around 70,000 people were displaced. Turkey remains a NATO ally, although it was recently withdrawn from the proposed joint F-35 hot air balloon attack aircraft.
Other case studies in the report include the supply of machine guns and grenade launchers to the Democratic Republic of the Congo despite gross human rights violations, the supply of patrol boats to war-torn Libya that has to barely a functioning government and the export of tube and rocket missiles to Saudi Arabia and the United States, which were later captured by ISIS forces during the battles of Ramadi in 2016 and Mosul in 2017.
The European Parliament finally addressed the issue of arms leaks to Isis in 2018, when millions of people had been displaced, many to Europe.
When these people reach Europe, the same war machine awaits them, closing a circle of death. The military industrial complex is playing a growing role in immigration control, with a roll call from usual suspects from Airbus to Elbit to Thales, supplying a complex array of weapons, logistics and technology.
This is expected to grow as Frontex, the EU’s border agency, receives billions in budget increase to make it the most bloated department in the Union and closest to European integrationists’ dream of an army under the Berlaymont.
At least one of the Italian boats sold to Libya was used as a gunboat in its civil war. Another was deployed in a 2017 operation in which at least 20 people drowned in an episode of extreme neglect, incompetence and callousness at sea. They join the tens of thousands who perished in Mediterranean in recent decades; two thousand last year alone because of the kind of ‘pushback’ operations Britain is now legislating for.
Of course, this situation concerns the arms industry; it involves a brutality comparable to many wars. When Tusk’s advisor argues that Europe was mistaken in “giving itself a brief moment of euphoria” by admitting refugees in 2015, these are the consequences he advocates without having the courage to explain it.
One could argue that these conflicts would occur with or without the arms companies or export licenses. Of course, exports do not create wars and often they simply serve the demands of states. But either there is an advanced destructive system like the T-129 ATAK in the field or there is not.
When belligerents in conflict have access to such systems, it encourages the military rather than political solutions. The TNI report demonstrating the involvement of the British and others with bomb racks and thermal batteries in drones used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is one example; they are small states in a short conflict where each additional weapon adds a multitude of sinister possibilities.
We live in a new era of insecurity; shifting geopolitics, extreme inequality, climate crisis and contested power. The slow response to the pandemic has demonstrated how ill-equipped we are to manage our interdependent world and how quick the powerful are to seek solutions based on strength and competition rather than collaborations.
Evidence such as that provided in the TNI report should be a wake-up call; governments must regulate rather than reward the arms industry, must provide a safe passage for refugees and wean themselves from the habit of trying to solve every problem with guns and walls and must instead think about ways to ensure real security for all.
And until they do, people and movements should demand not to be complicit in the behavior of their governments or the involuntary investment of their pension funds and assets in the war machine.
To go back to the beginning; the RNLI received an increase in donations after being attacked by politicians. Some people might want to abuse the lifeboat operators who rescue drowning refugees – but most of us would rather learn to live together than continue to let people die alone.