In January 2018 the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs recorded that Turkish-led airstrikes were forcing the displacement of thousands of people in Afrin, northern Syria.

“Over the 21 and 22 January period, many incidents of shelling and aerial bombardment were reported.. Hostilities reportedly caused people, especially those residing in communities near the border, to flee their homes to nearby caves in pursuit of safety.”

“Local sources reported an incident of shelling on a poultry farm which hosted a number of [internally displaced persons] from southern rural Idleb within Afrin. The incident reportedly resulted in the death of seven people, including five children.”

By March UNOCHA had registered nearly 100,000 people displaced from Afrin, these deaths and dispossession caused by a Turkish-led military offensive called Operation Olive Branch.

The following year in September the first joint US–Turkish patrol was staged inside Syrian territory. Turkish military troops on that side of the border met US troops on the Syrian side near the Turkish village of Ohali.

At a UN Security Council meet six weeks later, Ursula Mueller, assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs told the great powers:

“In the last two weeks, almost 180,000 people including some 80,000 children have fled south from the border area between Turkey and Syria. Most fleeing civilians are sheltering with friends and families, while others are in displacement camps or collective shelters. More than 10,000 people have fled to Iraq since the beginning of the recent operation”.

That was Operation Peace Spring.

Relief workers at the Bardarash Camp in Iraq would record that most of the 10,725 refugee arrivals in the camp had been displaced from northern Syria. 60% would state that they had fled airstrikes, or in fear of future airstrikes. The rest fled because they feared ground troops arriving in their area.

“Displacement is the consequence of a business model,” write the authors of a new report, “where profits are made first through the sale of arms that are instrumental in causing it, and secondly, in militarising migrant routes and borders.”

Titled Smoking Guns: How European arms exporters are forcing millions from their homes, the report authored by the international research and advocacy Transnational Institute connects these upheavals. Using open-source intelligence tools and public documents, it forcefully shows the culpability of European weapons manufacturers, and the states that show them hospitality.

Both attacks on civilians in Syria involved the use of Italian T-129 ATAK helicopters, manufactured by Leonardo S.p.A. headquartered in Lombardia, and licensed by the Italian ministry of defence to Turkish Aerospace Industry.

The helicopters were used in the US–Turkish patrol in northern Syria, UNOCHA reported and the Turkish defence ministry confirmed. Journalist groups published videos of T-129s in action in Afrin, geolocating two separate attacks carried out with them inside Syrian territory.??

Senate documents cited in the report show Italy earned €362 million that year from weapons exports to Turkey, including components, services and training for 45 T-129s, and licensed their assembly and use as the Turkish offensive took wing. Some of those licences remain valid today.

“The arms industry is involved in clear violations of non-transfer clauses and end-user agreements, despite a supposedly robust system of controls,” the report finds. “The evidence shows that once arms are traded, and although they may be traced, it is virtually impossible to control how they may eventually be used.”

Italian weapons have also been used in the cruel war on the people of Yemen.

A Saudi-led airstrike in October 2016 on a home in Deir al-Hajari killed a pregnant woman and her four children. Recoveries from the site included a suspension lug used to attach bombs to an aircraft, built by RWM Italia, a subsidiary of the German RheinmetallAG.

The report describes how managers of both businesses and officials of the Italian arms export control authority were hauled to court for criminal liability by NGOs in Yemen, Italy and Germany. The Italian public prosecutor requested the court to dismiss the case in October 2019. The complainants’ appeal is pending.

In another recent case, Germany’s top criminal court upheld a fine of €3.7 million levied against Heckler & Koch, accused of shipping its G36 rifles without authorisation to Mexico. The rifles were used by police officers in Iguala on the night of 26/27 September 2014 “in the massacre of six people, the forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college, and in severely injuring others, including one student who has been left in a vegetative state.”

Acknowledging the importance of legal action against these deals, the report says it “must also be accompanied by fundamental political change that addresses the gaps in arms export regulation and monitoring”. Otherwise, “legal challenges will always be reactive, once the damage is done, rather than preventative”.

It notes that public pressure over four years led the Italian government to revoke bomb export licences to Saudi Arabia and the UAE last January, “cancelling a shipment of over 12,700 bombs.”

Absent effective international regulation, which the authors say is “virtually non-existent” compared with sectors like food, these isolated instances only make a beginning against one of the “most lucrative businesses” in the world.

While the United States remains the world’s largest arms exporter by far, the EU-28 aren’t far behind. The big five among them - France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK - accounted for nearly a quarter of global arms exports in the five years to 2020.??

(That year India was the world’s second largest weapons importer after Saudi Arabia.)

The report states that since 2017, Europeans have earned €35 billion exporting weapons to countries in North Africa and West Asia alone, with the French earning €14 billion.

“Much of this trade, which has particularly devastating consequences for the countries and regions purchasing European arms, is poorly monitored. In many cases the sales go virtually unchecked.

“On the back of this lucrative trade, authoritarian regimes are propped up and maintained and armed conflicts are prolonged, with local populations bearing the brunt.”

By comparison, or perhaps as recompense, the European Commission made cash and loans of €900 million available last year for projects that purportedly “address the needs of forcibly displaced persons”, including in Syria.

Yet “if it were to stop sending assault rifles and rocket launchers, perhaps there would be much less need for the humanitarian aid packages in the first place.”

Sa’ada, Yemen, August 2018

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there were nearly 83 million people forcibly displaced from their homes at the end of 2020. 42% of them were children. A modest number of those displaced by the attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya have made their way across to Europe.

Many of them have been killed trying.

A ceremony in Tripoli in May 2017 attended by Italian home minister Marco Minniti marked the donation of four patrol boats manufactured by Intermarine S.p.A. (headquartered in Sarzana) to the Libyan navy and coast guard. The Italian government had also provided training to some of their officers.

That November, the TNI documents, the Libyan coast guard would use one of the boats in a “pull back” operation in the Mediterranean, meant to deter civilians from crossing the sea into Europe.

The boat would be observed silently watching a packed dinghy capsize with over 60 refugees on board. It would move closer and hinder the rescue being conducted by an NGO crew. Coast guard officials would use ropes to whip those brought out of the water onto their boat.

Many of the rescued were so afraid they jumped back into the water. 20 people drowned.

The next day, videos were broadcast of the patrol boat arriving at Abu Sittah with 47 “captured” people on board.

Alleging violations of international law, the report observes that the coast guard showed “no regard for human life and dignity, as well as a total lack of competence and professionalism in conducting a sea rescue, despite being trained (by the Italians) to do so.

“The abhorrent failures of the Libyan coast guard appear all the more serious when contrasted with the response of the Sea Watch crew, underscoring that such failures are neither accidental nor unintentional but part of a deliberate policy.”

Another glimpse of policy is in how the EU continues to militarise and expand the remit of Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency.

The report notes that the “expansion of Frontex has continued unabated, despite repeated allegations of misconduct, questionably aiding and abetting actors and violating International Human Rights Law and International Maritime Law in the Central and Eastern Mediterranean.”

In discovering and collating existing documentation of these cases, the Transnational Institute shows how European arms dealers and states profit by causing mass displacement, then profit some more, by “winning contracts to militarise borders further to contain migrants and keep them out.”

Not only out of Europe. “While EU member states were individually discussing how best to fortify their borders, the EU collectively was simultaneously devising sophisticated and largely obscure budget lines to support member states and third countries to expand their capacity to militarise their borders. Most notable are the EU’s Internal Security Fund and the EU Trust Fund for Africa.”

Besides ensuring lax oversight, the arms dealers’ hosts take care of political equations in weapons-consuming nations, either by propping up leaders who are good customers and suit their own interests, or by deposing those who don’t.

The authors are critical of institutions like the UNHCR on this count, which treat “violence” or “political instability” as root causes of forced displacement and dispossession.

Such a framework will not inquire into the causes of violence. By limiting its focus to those on the receiving end, it obscures “who is thriving from it, and what power structures allow it to happen.”

Part 2 follows. You can read the full report here

Getty Images : Former Italian interior minister Marco Minniti, now chairman of the Med-Or Leonardo Foundation