Arms firms funded by Scottish Enterprise linked to displacement of refugees

Arms firms given taxpayers’ money by Scottish Enterprise have been linked to the displacement of tens of thousands civilians escaping fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh and northern Syria, where people had to “flee to nearby caves”.

A new report exposes links between defence companies in the UK and the forced displacement of at least 188,000 people. 

Transnational Institute (TNI) – an international research institute – produced the report and named several companies including Italian firm Leonardo and BAE Systems. Both are based in Scotland and have received money from Scottish Enterprise, the Scottish Government’s business agency.

Critics said the “damning” report “emphasised the circle of profit that arms companies and governments have crafted across the EU”.

The UK Government insisted it had “robust” export policies in place. Scottish Enterprise stressed that its grants did not support the manufacture of munitions and were focussed on Scottish jobs in the aerospace, defence and marine sectors.

Leonardo, which employs 2,000 people in Edinburgh, is cited by TNI after making components for an attack helicopter – the T-129 – used by Turkey against Kurds in northern Syria.

This offensive, known as Operation Olive Branch, led to the displacement of 98,000 people. Leonardo received £7 million from Scottish Enterprise between 2016 and 2020, as reported by The Ferret.

TNI’s report said: “We have established that, via arms company Leonardo, Italy approved licences and exported materials, components, and training specific to the T-129 ATAK helicopter to Turkey, noting in particular the collaboration in 2017 and 2018.” 

The report cited videos showing the T-129 helicopter operating in the Syrian city of Afrin. It noted that the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said there was “considerable displacement” from the region in January 2018 due to Operation Olive Branch.

Hostilities reportedly caused people to “flee their homes to nearby caves in pursuit of safety”, said the report. By March 2018 OCHA had registered at least 98,000 people displaced from Afrin.

Scotland has a hand in Leonardo’s profits, not just from selling weapons that fuel wars and force people from their homes, but also from producing the fences and walls used to fortify those borders.

Emma Cockburn, Scotland co-ordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade

BAE Systems is linked to a conflict in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh which forcibly displaced 90,000 people. The UK defence firm is part of a consortium linked to drones used by Turkey in that conflict.

The Bayraktar TB2 is assembled in Turkey but contains a number of components that originate from Austria, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK.

The report said: “Germany has also participated in arming Turkish drones by transferring skills alongside exporting tandem warheads, complex explosive systems designed specifically to destroy armoured targets. The company involved in this exchange was TDW, which is wholly owned by European missile manufacturer MBDA, which in turn is owned by Franco-German Airbus, UK BAE Systems and Italian Leonardo.”

It added: “Components manufactured in France, Germany, and the UK, and other countries, are exported to Turkey, where lethal drones are assembled thanks to knowledge shared by EU member states. These drones were subsequently sold to Azerbaijan and used in a conflict that drove at least 90,000 people from their homes, most of whom may never be able to return.

“Conflict analysts agree that this particular war marks a new point of departure in the use of lethal drones and the consequent destruction and devastation.” 

Emma Cockburn, Scotland co-ordinator for Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “As shown with the Osprey radar, Leonardo has received millions from Scotland’s public purse to develop technologies used to police and militarise borders.

“Scotland has a hand in Leonardo’s profits, not just from selling weapons that fuel wars and force people from their homes, but also from producing the fences and walls used to fortify those borders.”

Cockburn continued: “Holyrood claims to uphold and champion human rights yet continues to fund BAE Systems and other arms companies who exacerbate conflict and profit from the displacement and suffering of people around the world.

“Drastic action is urgently needed on the policies and procedures of public bodies, like Scottish Enterprise, and this must be a priority for this new Scottish Government. We can no longer continue to support profit over human lives.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We take our export responsibilities seriously and operate one of the most robust and transparent export control regimes in the world. All export licences are rigorously tested in accordance with strict licensing criteria, and licenses will not be issued where to do so would be inconsistent with these criteria.”

A BAE Systems spokesperson said: “We comply with all relevant export control laws and regulations in the countries in which we operate. Our activities are subject to UK Government approval and oversight.”

Leonardo did not reply to our request for a comment.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The export of arms is the responsibility of the UK Government, and we expect them to properly police such exports and to properly investigate any concerns raised.

“The Scottish Government does not provide funding for the manufacture of munitions – either directly or via Scottish Enterprise. The support provided is mainly focused on helping firms to diversify their activities and technology and ensure Scotland continues to benefit from the thousands of jobs in the defence, aerospace and shipbuilding sectors.

“Human rights due diligence checks are a normal part of the Scottish Enterprise application process.”

A spokesperson from Scottish Enterprise said: “We do not support the manufacture of munitions. Our work with defence companies is predominantly focused on helping firms to diversify to ensure Scotland continues to benefit from the thousands of jobs across the aerospace, defence and marine industry.”

Arms Exports and Displacement

TNI’s report also addressed the “migrant crisis”, estimating that European arms exports are linked to the displacement of 1.1 million people in total. But it claims this is a “conservative estimate”.

The study said: “Europe appears to be looking to profit from the displaced rather than to guarantee their protection. What Europe perceives as a ‘migrant crisis’ is largely a problem of its own making because it consistently placed economic interests and profit above human rights and need.”

The study comes as the UK Government takes an increasingly hard line on civilians forcibly displaced from war zones who are trying to reach the UK for safety. Some commentators, including ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage, even condemned the RNLI for saving asylum seekers from drowning in the English Channel.

Medecins Sans Frontieres, a charity which has rescued hundreds of asylum seekers at sea, said current UK policy was “deeply worrying”.

A spokesperson added: “The UK Government has already cut off safe and legal routes to this country for people – including unaccompanied children – trapped in appalling conditions on the Greek islands and elsewhere.

“Now they are threatening to adopt an even more inhumane approach via the borders bill which is currently before parliament.”

The UK Government has maintained its proposed immigration reforms are “firm and fair”.

Photo Credit: iStock/RadekProcyk

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