As emigration from Africa and the Middle East increases, so do protectionist measures and the militarization of the European Union’s borders. Arms dealers and security companies, such as Airbus and Leonardo, are some of the largest profiteers of this immoral cycle, and play a significant role in facilitating the continuation of the migration crisis.
These companies export weapons to countries dealing with civil wars, fueling the violence that causes wide scale displacement. Then, those same corporations sell security equipment to European border agencies, which often leads to brutality toward asylum seekers attempting to enter the EU. This predatory practice by arms dealers demonstrates a lack of respect for human life and exacerbates the extenuating human rights circumstances of the refugee crisis.
A recent study by the Transnational Institute, an international research and advocacy think tank, found evidence of direct ties between European weapons exports and mass displacement. For example, the study revealed that exports of T-129 ATAK helicopters manufactured by the Italian multinational corporation Leonardo contributed to the displacement of 5,000 people during a military operation in Afrin, Syria in 2018. The Turkish army used this machinery to engage in airstrikes and shellings of the Rubar Refugee Camp in Syria and other communities across the region, catalyzing even more migration.
Similarly, a coalition of French, German and British arms dealers exported Bayraktar TB2 Drones to Azerbaijan that led to the displacement of 90,000 Armenians during a six-week period of bomb attacks in 2020. Azerbaijani forces used hornet bombs and missiles, manufactured in part by the French aerospace company Airbus, to engage in the indiscriminate killing of people across the Republic of Artsakh region. Nearly 60% of the population was forced to leave due to these attacks
These examples represent only a few of the multitudes of deals made by European-based weapons manufacturers that engineered displacement in non-EU countries.
A small percentage of those forced to migrate travel to the EU to exercise their right to seek asylum under international law. Even though refugees only make up 0.6% of the total EU population, massive protectionist movements and the popularization of right-wing parties have occurred as a result of negative discourse on immigration. And conservative political parties and interest groups continue to find new ways to evade international law by discouraging or even violently preventing asylum seekers from entering EU territory.
One example of this deterrence occurred in October 2021, when Poland spent over $400 million constructing a fence between itself and the influx of refugees coming from Belarus. The government enforced the barrier with wires, cameras and thermal sensors that detect movement after dark.
Likewise, the Italian government criminalized aid for migrants illegally entering EU territory by land or sea. Many people try to gain access to the EU from northern Africa by crossing the Mediterranean in inadequate ships, which often sink. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) send rescue teams to save as many people as possible. In 2017, the Italian police called in the crew of an NGO rescue ship, the Luventa, and accused them of partaking in illegal immigration.
This sparked an ongoing investigation, in which ten humanitarian workers faced 20-year prison sentences. Legal cases like this are intentional attempts to deter rescue activities and contribute to the 22,000 people who have been reported missing in the Mediterranean since 2014. But rather than curbing the flow of refugees, acts of deterrence merely force people to take more precarious travel routes.
Another example of excessive border militarization occurs when governments recruit private security companies to increase the number of police on their borders. The UK, for example, worked with Eamos Cork Solutions and Biro Sécurité to institute additional police and security equipment in Calais, France, a hotspot for migrants attempting to cross the English Channel. In 2016, Eamos Cork Solutions gained $33 million from its contracts in Calais, despite the multitude of reports regarding abuses against refugees by the company’s guards.
The EU also works to externalize its borders by forging agreements with Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, and 12 other African countries to cooperate on migration prevention schemes. The EU has trained and increased funding for the Libyan Coast Guard, another entity tasked with rescuing people in the Mediterranean. Rather than deliver people to ports in Italy or Greece, the Coast Guard returns them to Libya and places them in detention centers that are notorious for inhumane treatment.
These security measures require an immense amount of technology in the form of helicopters, patrol vessels, drones, thermal vision cameras, heartbeat detectors, night-vision goggles, the EU-wide surveillance system Eurosur, and countless other pieces of equipment. The EU has invested over $39 billion in border management funding for the 2021-27 budget. As mentioned above, the companies that provide the technology for border protection across the EU and African partner countries are the same enterprises that sell arms and other military equipment to governments in conflict.
Recent deals include the 2020 EU partnership with Airbus. As a part of this agreement, Airbus will provide additional surveillance and communication technology for EU borders. In March 2021, Leonardo also signed another contract with the EU Parliament to provide countries with a cybersecurity system that registers people each time they cross a border. Leonardo, along with two IT partners, garnered a whopping $101 million from this agreement.
These deals demonstrate the hypocrisy and unethical nature of arms dealers and security corporations. The industry stands to gain from the continued flow of refugees combined with the pushback they receive upon their arrival in Europe. Many of the high-level company officials also have a stake in government or lobby groups fighting for border protection. For example, the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance owns 30% of Leonardo. Connections like these allow security companies to have significant power in policy decisions regarding the management of borders. These corporations purposefully lobby for continued arms deals and protectionist policies in order to reap the profits of this deadly cycle.
Many governments gladly concede to protectionist campaigns because they fear the domestic backlash that accompanies an influx of migrants. To avoid this criticism, politicians circumvent their legal obligation to accept asylum seekers by preventing their physical entry into EU territory, which, again, expands the market for surveillance corporations.
In great irony, these so-called “security” companies make the world a more dangerous place.
Unless governments and activists band together, these corporations will continue to prioritize economic gain over human wellbeing, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people each year.