Service for Life: State Repression and Indefinite Conscription in Eritrea

Published: 16/Apr/2009
Source: Human Rights Watch


Coercion of Eritreans in Exile

The tragic reality for Eritreans who flee the country is that once they have escaped, they—and particularly their families—are still not entirely safe from repressive actions by the Eritrean government. In a small country with a relatively small population (4 million), the local administrations in towns and rural areas usually have a clear idea of who is where. And as described, the government has made it clear that it considers every Eritrean who leaves the country illegally to be a traitor to the nation. Once a person leaves the country they are, in effect, treated as fugitives by the government and if returned are treated as criminals who will face detention, torture, and sometimes death.

There are a variety of ways in which the Eritrean government exerts pressure on exiles for both financial and political reasons. The government expects all Eritreans in the diaspora to pay a two percent tax on income. While taxing expatriates may be a legitimate state function, the manner in which the Eritrean government coerces individuals into paying this income presents serious human rights concerns. If refugees or other Eritrean expatriates do not pay the two percent tax then the government typically punishes family members in Eritrea by arbitrarily detaining them, extorting fines, and denying them the right to do business by revoking licenses or confiscating land.

The two percent tax is not only a financial mechanism, however. The government also uses it to consolidate its control over the diaspora population by denying politically suspect individuals essential documents such as passports and requiring those who live in Eritrea to provide ‘clearance’ documents for their relatives who live abroad—essentially coercion to ensure that their relatives have paid the two percent expatriate income tax demanded by the government.

The two percent tax

As well as being a unique method of social control, the expatriate fund-raising operations are a crucial source of revenue for the Eritrean government. In two months in 2003 the Eritrean Embassy in London reported US$3.2 million profit resulting from ‘second round distribution of land’ collected and remitted to Asmara. According to the documents, the annual income of the Embassy in 2003 was $6.2 million. Of this only $74,282 was derived from visa fees while the rest is described as ‘Contribution to draught affected (sic),’ ‘Contribution to Relief Rehabilitation,’ ‘Contribution to National Defence,’ Contribution for Martyrs Children and Disabled,’ Contribution for Rehabilitation of ex-fighters,’ ‘Contribution to Recovery Tax.’ Supporting documents showed payments from Eritreans into a UK bank account held by the Embassy.

During the liberation struggle, most Eritreans in exile willingly contributed portions of their income to the EPLF. After independence, the government continued the practice in the name of national development. It is nominally a voluntary contribution. However, as many Eritreans living abroad in Europe and North America explained to Human Rights Watch, payment or non-payment carries consequences for themselves and crucially, for their families who are still in Eritrea.

One man living in the UK, a known critic of the government, said that his family had been denied land that they had applied for in Eritrea, because of his refusal to pay the tax. “My mum begged me to pay the two percent, she was crying on the phone.” Clearance is a process whereby an embassy charges a fee to certify that Eritreans living abroad have paid their dues and are up to date with the two percent tax. The accounts of the embassy in London for 2004 to 2005 are peppered with references to two percent as well as ‘clearance’, for which Eritreans must usually pay UK£30 ($44).  A woman living in Eritrea described how several of her neighbors had had their business licenses revoked because their children, residents in the United States, had not paid the two percent and they could not provide clearance certificates.

Embassies have particular leverage over many Eritrean immigrants and refugees who do not have travel documents, and those whose passports require renewing. A refugee living in Rome had his application for a new passport refused. “When I went back they said they had sent my passport to Eritrea, [and I would not get it back]. When I asked why, they said ‘because you are not a good citizen, you do not pay two percent, you do not complete your national obligations.’” He remains without travel documents to date. “If you don’t pay they don’t renew your passport, with no passport, you have no permit to stay in Italy… so directly or indirectly you are obligated to pay.”

Those individuals granted asylum under the 1951 Refugee Convention are generally provided with their travel documents by the host country, but in Italy, for instance, the majority of Eritrean refugees are granted “humanitarian” or “subsidiary” protection, a lesser status usually requiring renewal on an annual basis. This does not automatically provide travel documentation, and so persons in that category need passports. “Those with humanitarian protection, they are vulnerable, many of them go back to the embassy to seek passports…the Eritrean government is a big mafia.”

Even once a refugee makes a decision to approach the embassy and request official assistance for whatever reason, the state requires those who have fled the country illegally or absconded from national service to sign a ‘confession’ admitting to treason and failing to fulfill one’s national duty.

One former political prisoner who had fled the country after he had been released from Dahlak jail, is stuck in Italy with expired documents but refuses to go to the Eritrean embassy, “If I seek a passport from the Eritrean embassy you have to sign a paper saying you are a criminal, I don’t want to do that.”  Refugees in London spoke of similar procedures at the London embassy.

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Themes: ID Documents and Passports
Regions: Eritrea
Year: 2009