How the global trade in tear gas is booming

Feature for BBC online, December 16 2018


When the US border control agents used tear gas against migrants seeking asylum at the southern border, it was a high-profile incident in a decade that has seen rising use of tear gas around the world.

On the surface, Noor Noor and Terry Burns don't have much in common.

The former is a 28-year-old student at Cambridge, getting a degree in environmental conservation that he plans to use back home in Cairo, Egypt. The latter sells lawn ornaments and homegrown vegetables out of her house in the rolling farmlands of Jamestown, Pennsylvania, population 617. They've never met.

But Noor and Burns are linked by the global trade in nonlethal weapons, a growing industry that burst into the headlines when asylum-seekers were tear gassed as they tried to cross the US-Mexico border.

Noor's first interaction with the weapon was on 25 January 2011, the first day the Egyptian uprising took hold in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

At 20 years old, he'd been at political demonstrations before, but he'd never seen this many people in the streets and never a group this diverse. The regular use of tear gas - that was new too.

"At the beginning, it was greeted almost with curiosity: 'Will this gas really make you cry?'" Noor said.

Getting gassed by security forces trying to dispel the protesters didn't just make him cough and cry, though. It made his stomach clench up. He saw others pass out; some fell to the ground, convulsing.

"I thought it was called tear gas; I had no idea it was called 'choke you to death and run around blindly gas,'" he said.

Keep reading