UK arms exports undermine its attempts to tackle the root causes of the refugee crisis

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 13 September 2016 in Comment

The UK's arms export policy undermines claims it is tackling the root causes of the refugee crisis

Air strike in Sana'a - photo credit: Ibrahem Qasim

Theresa May has announced there is “no single silver bullet” in dealing with immigration, which is refreshing, at least in the sense it proves she knows there’s a difference between migrants and werewolves.

From May’s silver bullets to David Cameron’s ‘swarms’ of migrants, some of the language used to discuss migration – whether meaningless or dehumanising – certainly leaves a lot to be desired.

And with the post-referendum Conservative party still paralysed by confusion over freedom of movement, migration, and questions over Britain’s place in the world, the news that Scotland has now received 1,000 refugees from Syria since last October, a third of the UK total, seemed to throw the contrast between Holyrood and Westminster policy into stark relief.


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The UK, overall, has agreed to relocate 20,000 people by 2020 and has so far taken around 3,000. Germany has already taken in over a million.

The concern seems to be that relocating people will act as an incentive for others to come. The plan, apparently, is to instead address conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, so people do not need to flee for their lives in the first place, rather than take in those who have already arrived in Europe.

As Cameron put it last year: “We think the most important thing is to try to bring peace and stability to that part of the world. I don’t think there is an answer that can be achieved simply by taking more and more refugees.”

Of course May’s premiership could bring a change in policy, but so far it looks unlikely, given her remarks about tackling the “root causes of mass migration”, made as she left G20 talks in China. And given this was then followed by plans – apparently borrowed directly from Donald Trump – to build a giant wall in Calais to stop refugees getting to the UK, there seems little reason to be too hopeful. Whether Mexico will pay for the wall remains unclear.

Yet while it makes sense to focus on root causes, it’s also hard to see much evidence of the UK acting to tackle the structural causes of the biggest humanitarian crisis in decades.

In fact new statistics collated by UK Trade and Investment show the UK is the second biggest arms exporter in the world. In the last six years the UK has sold weapons to 39 of the 51 countries classified as “not free” by Freedom House, along with 22 of the 30 countries on the UK Government’s own human rights watch list.

And on the very same day May was talking about ‘root causes’, Boris Johnson was defending UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The new foreign secretary is facing increased calls to ban exports to the country, including from the Westminster Committees on Arms Export Controls, which released a draft report saying it was highly likely that UK arms had been used by Saudi-led forces in violations of international humanitarian and human rights laws during the civil war in Yemen.

But Johnson rejected the idea these weapons could be used in a serious breach of international humanitarian law. “Having regard to all the information available to us,” he said, “we assess this test has not been met.”

And so what information was available to prove whether these weapons had been used in breach of international law? The answer, it seems, was a Saudi-led inquiry.

Justifying the policy, Johnson said: “They [Saudi Arabia] have the best insight into their own procedures and will be able to conduct the most thorough and conclusive investigations.”

It seemed extraordinary. There may be no silver bullet in dealing with migration, but addressing the UK’s approach to arms sales might be a start.

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