Today
Sat 23 October 2021

The Byline Intelligence Team attended the opening day of London’s controversial Government-backed arms fair to witness the protests and hear the voices of those who have fled the bombs now on sale

As the Government launched ‘Operation Warm Welcome‘ to accommodate thousands of Afghan families fleeing violence and persecution from Taliban fighters wielding abandoned western weapons, plans were being finalised for one of the world’s largest arms fairs. 

The Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) arms fair opened at the ExCeL centre in London’s Docklands this month, welcoming 1,600 exhibitors selling weapons to states and foreign governments. 

In stark contrast to the Home Secretary’s New Plan for Immigration – which takes a tougher approach to people fleeing violence to the UK – when it came to buying the weapons that perpetuate violence, it seemed like everyone was welcome. This included known human rights abusers – with the Guardian reporting that the Department for International Trade had invited six nations on the UK’s human rights list, including Saudi Arabia. 

But, for Atiaf Alwazir, a young woman from Yemen who saw her aunt killed in a drone strike, the decision to welcome Saudi representatives with open arms “sent a message that people’s lives – especially certain people – don’t matter”.

The brutal six-year conflict in Yemen has been fought using Saudi weapons. Alwazir, a member of the Quaker Council for European Affairs, told protestors outside the fair waving Palestinian flags and holding signs that read “war starts here” about her relationship with the weapons being traded less than 10 metres from where she stood. “There are images of the bodies that never leave me and I don’t know whether they ever will,” she said. 

It was not just Alwazir’s audience who were angered by the world’s largest arms fair happening in London. Campaigners from Christian group Put Down The Sword blocked an entrance to the ExCeL centre for seven hours, dripping in red paint and wrapped in bin bags for make-shift raincoats. A Stop The Arms Fair activist stood on top of a military helicopter at the fair. Workers set off red smoke grenades inside.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan had attempted to stop the fair taking place. In a letter to its organisers, he asked them to “reconsider” their plans and argued that it was insulting to the capital’s asylum seekers who “have fled conflict and suffered as a consequence” of weapons.

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Arms Versus Asylum 

Also protesting outside the arms fair was Malak Mayet, of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, who told Byline Times how “arms fairs bolster border violence in two ways”.

“They contribute to the war that creates the refugee crisis; and secondly, part of the technology being sold at the DESI arms fair is border equipment,” she said. “The equipment that creates militarised borders is being sold at the DSEI arms fair.”

An investigation by the Guardian in May found that at least 40,000 asylum seekers were pushed back at borders by EU member states using illegal operations, including assault and brutality during detention, throughout the Coronavirus pandemic. 

In the shadow of the arms fair, where powerful people in smart suits swap tips about shining missiles, those who fled the violence of those weapons are often struggling to get by in squalid and often unsanitary conditions.

5,360 people seeking asylum currently live in London, and the capital has 0.7 people seeking asylum per 10,000 resident population. That number could soon increase, with the UK’s pledge to resettle 20,000 Afghan families over the “long-term”.

Diana Mosumari has been living in Home Office accommodation in London since she claimed asylum in the UK in 2018. In April, she was moved to a house with a rat infestation. There were no lights and she no longer bought perishable goods because there was no fridge. 

“The carpet is very very old and smelly so the kids cannot play in the living room,” she said. “I feel sorry for them.” 

After complaining to the housing association for months, her lights now work, but none of the other issues have been fixed. “The way the accommodation providers act is like they don’t care,” she told Byline Times. “Meaning that they’ve gotten away with so many things. It’s like, ‘okay, you can complain but we are not going to do anything’.”

Her neighbour has recently moved in with her new-born baby. A broken window meant that the house was so cold that she had to wrap her child up and hold her throughout the night to keep the baby warm. 

Mosumari’s experience is not unique. Private providers Serco and G4S routinely come under fire for housing asylum seekers in ‘squalid’ accommodation. A report by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration found that almost half of Home Office properties were “not fit for purpose” or in need of “urgent action”.

The Ministry of Defence sent General Sir Patrick Sanders, the UK’s Strategic Commander, to launch the arms fair who indicated that the Government was there with the intention to spend. “In the last 12 months, we [the British military] have been given the means to modernise with a historic funding settlement,” he told the audience.

Meanwhile, a member of the Byline Intelligence Team who attended the fair overheard a  British Colonel speaking to a British arms supplier.

“I want to spend my money fast,” they said – with the supplier responding: “I want to take your money fast.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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