A group of Eritrean women from the Eritrean Diaspora in London, calling themselves Team Eritrea, are demanding that the British government ends its toleration of the infamous 2% Diaspora tax that the Eritrean Government extorts from all its citizens living across the world.
The demand for payment is levied under the pretext of providing a “social cushion for the dependents of martyrs of war, disabled war veterans and national reconstruction and development.” Its collection is often conducted unlawfully, and Eritreans in the Diaspora wherever they are, are forced to pay 2% of their income under threat and intimidation. If they refuse they are not allowed to renew their passports, they are told they cannot obtain visas to visit their own country or conduct any form of business there. It is made very clear that they can expect no form of service from their embassy if they do not pay the tax immediately as well as any back payments that might be owed. The demands have brought considerable financial burden for many of the Eritrean Diaspora working in Europe, America and other parts of the world to make a living and support families back in Eritrea out of their earnings. The UK campaigners point out that the money is extorted in many cases from refugees who are some of the poorest people in the community, people who just want to help their families. The practice of forced extortion of the Diaspora Tax has been almost universally and repeatedly condemned by Eritreans across the world, as they have shown in many demonstrations.
In fact, the Government of Eritrea collects this Diaspora Tax by employing lawless and coercive tactics using its missions abroad and, where it has no diplomatic representation, through members of the ruling People’s Front for Justice and Democracy (PFDJ). It is often collected in direct contravention of the laws of the host country, and involves opaque financial transactions to conceal the reality of the operations. Indeed, in efforts to make collection of the tax non-traceable, the regime has started employing different ways of collection, refusing to provide receipt of payment, using private accounts instead of embassy or consul accounts and making collection in cash.
Irrespective of the way the tax is collected, the collection of the Diaspora tax and its extortion from Eritreans in the Diaspora is in clear violation of the UN Resolution 2023 of May 2011. This was an extension of an earlier Security Council UN resolution 1907 of 2009 which condemned the usage of the Diaspora tax for acts of destabilization including support and arming of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Resolution 2023 went further, condemning the use of the Diaspora Tax collected from the Eritrean Diaspora by the Eritrean Government to destabilize the Horn of Africa region or violate other relevant resolutions, including 1844 (2008), 1862 (2009) and 1907 (2009). In this context it noted that possible purposes included “procuring arms and related materiel for transfer to armed opposition groups or providing any services or financial transfers provided directly or indirectly to such groups”, as outlined in the findings of the Somalia/Eritrea Monitoring Group in its 18 July 2011 report (S/2011/433). It called on Eritrea to cease all such practices.
Resolution 2023 also “decides that Eritrea shall 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, decides further that States shall undertake appropriate measures to hold accountable, consistent with international law, those individuals on their territory who are acting, officially or unofficially, on behalf of the Eritrean government or the PFDJ contrary to the prohibitions imposed in this paragraph and the laws of the States concerned, and calls upon States to take such action as may be appropriate consistent with their domestic law and international relevant instruments, including the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to prevent such individuals from facilitating further violations.”
In the face of this very clear directive, it is hardly surprising that Eritrea’s extrajudicial and extraterritorial taxation of its nationals and indeed in some cases of Eritreans with dual nationality, has been meeting some resistance from host countries at the behest of those who are at the receiving end of this continued extortion. Since the passing of UN Resolution 2023 in 2011, the Governments of Germany, the UK and Canada have all requested Eritrea to stop the use of coercive tactics to collect the Diaspora Tax. In Canada, the Government has taken the matter further. Following repeated requests by Eritreans and Canadians of Eritrean descent for government intervention, the Canadian authorities finally expelled the Eritrean consul in Toronto in May last year after he had repeatedly ignored Canadian demands to stop collecting the tax and time and again given false assurances that he would do so. The Canadian government’s decision was widely welcomed as a response to the Eritrean regime’s continued flaunting of its refusal to acknowledge or take any notice of the UN Security Council or its resolution 2023.
The UK Government also warned the Eritrean embassy in the UK that some aspects of the collection of the tax levied on Eritreans living in the UK were unlawful and in breach of the Vienna Conventions on Diplomatic and Consular Relations. A UN Monitoring Group report noted that “On 20 May 2011, the Government of the United Kingdom notified the Eritrean authorities that, since aspects of the collection of the two per cent tax may be unlawful and in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, until it was demonstrated otherwise, the Eritrean embassy should suspend, immediately and in full, all activities relating to the collection of the tax.”. The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Baroness Warsi is quoted as saying “The UK supported UN Security Council Resolution 2023 which condemned Eritrea’s use of the Diasporas tax to destabilize the Horn of Africa region and decided that Eritrea should cease using illicit means to collect the tax. We are aware of allegations over the use of harassment to collect revenue from members of the Eritrean Diaspora in the UK.”
In June 2012, the UK Government also introduced its Eritrea Asset Freezing Regulation to enable it to discharge its duties as a member state of the UN in enforcing Resolution 2023. The UK Foreign office apparently raised the matter again in December 2012, telling the Ambassador that the government was “aware of allegations over the use of harassment to collect revenue from members of the Eritrean Diaspora in the UK” and reminding him of UN Security Council resolution 2023. He was told to stop the practice. However, it appears Eritrea has continued to ignore all warnings.
Certainly, according to recent UK press reports, Eritreans in the UK are still facing demands for payment of the tax and for any and all back payments for which the embassy claims a person is liable. The UK papers have published recordings of conversations between Eritreans residing in UK and Eritrean Diplomats which confirm the continued extortion of the Diaspora Tax. One Eritrean was told that he would have to pay the tax for the whole period of seventeen years since he had graduated. Without this, he would be unable to access any embassy services. These apparently include any embassy activity including assistance in sending remittances back to their families or even dispatching old clothes. Those who fail to pay the tax are also prevented from opening or closing businesses or obtaining any sort of authorization or license without a tax certificate from the authorities. The Eritrean regime which has, in fact, systematically failed to follow any of the established customs and rules of international diplomacy, continues similarly to blackmail its own nationals over their basic human rights in order to seize minimal amounts of hard-earned foreign exchange.
This latest evidence of the Eritrean Government’s continued extortion in defiance of UN Security Council resolution 2023 also emphasizes the need for UN member states to undertake close scrutiny of all Eritrean Missions and implement effectively the resolution which clearly calls for the cessation of forced extraterritorial taxation by the Eritrean regime. Implementation of effective mechanisms to save Eritreans in the Diaspora from harassment and undue fiscal burdens is also directly linked by the resolution to security in the Horn of Africa. The money collected through Diaspora Tax has been, and still is, used to finance terrorists. The way the regime has switched to fraudulent collection of this tax, using dubious private accounts and denial of receipts, demonstrates its efforts to try to conceal its activities from the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea. It is the Monitoring Group’s reports which have exposed the way the Diaspora Tax, and indeed other forced contributions of funds to the Eritrean Defense Forces, have been in continued support of regional efforts at destabilization.
It is surely now incumbent on countries that are home to Eritreans in the Diaspora to uphold United Nations Security Council resolutions, and particularly resolution 2023, and ensure that the Eritrean regime cannot use its diplomatic presence to extort monies illegally, and in defiance of the Vienna Conventions, from its citizens. This, after all, is a government which also continues to provide national service conscript “slave labor” for the companies involved in mining operations in Eritrea. It is hardly surprising that so many regard Eritrea as a pariah state. Nor is it surprising that the campaigners of Team Eritrea now want the British Government to implement UN resolution 2023 on the Diaspora Tax fully and properly, and follow the example of Canada in expelling Eritrean diplomats responsible for these extortionate and illegal practices.
*Originally published on the Week in the Horn, a weekly bulletin of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Feb. 21, 2014 issue, titled “Eritrea’s continued extortion of the 2% Diaspora Tax“. Re-published here with a permission to do so.