The greater Washington area has become a refuge for Eritreans fleeing one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships. While great hope accompanied Eritrea’s independence almost three decades ago, freedom fighter-turned-independence leader Isaias Afwerki imposed a regime that rivals only North Korea and Turkmenistan in the level of its totalitarianism. In the latest Freedom House rankings, Eritrea even slipped behind Kim Jong Un’s hermit kingdom. To escape mandatory and indefinite conscription (essentially state-sanctioned, lifelong slavery), many Eritreans flee and make the hazardous journey across desert and sea to Europe and, if lucky, eventually to the United States. Given the economic ruin that Isaias has wrought upon his homeland, he has long been willing to turn a blind eye toward this flight given how the remittances sent back to their family members helped Eritrea stay afloat.
The problem with dictators, whether Isaias, Kim, or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is that they are seldom satiated by their own wealth: There is always something more they want, and they waste no effort trying to extract it from their own citizenry.
So, too, it has become with Isaias. Not content to wait for remittances to come from abroad, Isaias has sought to use the long arms of his dictatorship to levy a “diaspora tax” on Eritreans abroad, including those who now call themselves Americans. Within Eritrea, Isaias is the law. He bases demands for a “rehabilitation and recovery tax” on proclamations he issued in 1991 and 1995. Eritrean court journalists and regime apologists can say that the tax is legal, but the nature of law in Isaias’s Eritrea is akin to Louis XIV’s famous quip, “L’etat, c’est moi.” In short, the law is only the word of an absolute dictator and nothing more.
Imposing the tax inside the U.S. would be illegal on Eritrea’s part, but it would not be the first time countries have used their embassies for purposes that violate diplomatic protocols. President Jimmy Carter, for example, closed the Iranian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue not because student radicals loyal to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran but rather because the new Iranian regime had run an operation from the property to kill a former Iranian diplomat living in Bethesda. Turkey, likewise, now uses its embassy just up the street to spy on political opponents real or imagined.
The State Department and U.S. law enforcement should neither ignore the evidence that Eritrea is abusing its diplomatic missions nor the precedent. In December 2011, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2023 called on Eritrea to “cease using extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea from its nationals or other individuals of Eritrean descent.” Isaias has simply ignored the call, and flagrantly so.
In 2013, for example, Canada expelled Eritrea’s consul-general after he ignored warnings to stop extorting, harassing, and threatening Eritrean emigres unless they forfeited 2% of their earnings to the government. The move had no discernible impact on Isaias, as a subsequent investigation showed that the consulate continued its extortion scheme. In 2018, the Dutch Foreign Ministry expelled Eritrea’s top diplomat in the Netherlands after he too ignored calls to stop the embassy’s taxation of the Eritrean community as a prerequisite for access to any goods and services, and the Dutch government may soon do it again. The United Kingdom has likewise investigated Eritrea for allegedly using its diplomats to threaten and coerce Eritreans living there to remit money directly to the government. A study conducted jointly by the DSP-groep, Tilburg University, and European External Policy Advisors found that Eritrean diplomats or unofficial government intermediaries also collected funds in Belgium, Italy, Norway, and Sweden and that the Eritrean government made collection of its levy part of its broader surveillance and intimidation scheme.
The problem appears to be worsening. The Eritrean government has defined Eritreans as “any person born to a father or mother of Eritrean origin in Eritrea or abroad,” imposing citizenship and its obligations on naturalized citizens, including Americans who have never stepped foot in Eritrea and have neither the desire nor the intention to do so. Survey respondents report at least some taxation of state welfare benefits paid by their new countries to those of Eritrean origin. While some Eritreans refuse to pay the tax in the belief they will never return to Eritrea, should they need to engage the embassy, they must first pay the tax levied and accumulated from the time they fled the country. If, for example, they must register a power of attorney, they might need first to pay tens of thousands of dollars in back diaspora tax assessments. Likewise, if they need documents such as marriage certificate copies to support emigration and asylum claims, they will find themselves blocked until they pay accumulated diaspora tax.
Eritrean diplomats, for their part, deny that the diaspora tax is illegal and liken it to U.S. taxation of its citizens living abroad, something to which European countries do not subject their citizens. U.S. double taxation is bad policy on Washington’s part, but the American analogy is simply inaccurate. The U.S. negotiates double taxation treaties with various governments. That the Eritrean regime will threaten the family members of its nationals abroad to compel diaspora tax payments likewise places it firmly in the camp not of the U.S. but rather of North Korea, Turkmenistan, or, in the past, Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The Eritrean violation in Washington both of normal diplomatic protocols and U.N. Security Council Resolution 2023 is unapologetic. The Eritrean Embassy in Washington might be temporarily closed, but its website solicits diaspora tax payments and states simply, “Eritreans who live abroad contribute 2% of their net income to rebuilding Eritrea.” It demands Eritreans turn over documents such as W-2s, U.S. tax returns, and Social Security statements so that Eritrean officials can calculate the tax owed. The Eritrean Mission in New York, however, remains open.
Ending illicit Eritrean activity on U.S. soil would be both easy and is necessary. For the State Department, the issue should not only be Eritrea but the fact that ignoring such violations gives a green light to other countries (from China to Turkey to Iran) to violate diplomatic norms at their U.N. missions and Washington embassies or interests’ sections. The European approach of simply expelling diplomats does not work because Isaias and his government simply rotate new officials in to continue the old practices. Instead, it might be time to shutter the embassy and U.N. mission if demonstrably in violation until such a time as Isaias commits both to canceling the diaspora tax and refunding the money extorted from Eritrean immigrants to the U.S.