Out of Sight,
Not Out of Reach
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Understanding Transnational Repression
WHAT IS TRANSNATIONALREPRESSION?
It is governmentsreaching across bordersto silence dissentamong diasporas andexiles, includingthrough assassinations,illegal deportations,abductions, digitalthreats, Interpol abuse,and familyintimidation.
It is a daily assault oncivilians everywhere —including indemocracies like theUnited States, UnitedKingdom, Canada,Germany, and Australia.
WHO IS AT RISK?
Praphan Pipithnamporn is a Malaysian Thai anti-monarchy campaigner. She had been arrested multiple times in Thailand for her political activities and held in military detention. Fearing further persecution, she fled Thailand in January 2019 to Malaysia and registered as an asylum-seeker. Despite her protected status, however, Malaysian authorities arrested her in April 2019, and illegally returned her to Thailand in May that year.
ORIGIN & HOST
Origin + Host Country
Each line represents a unique origin country-host country relationship through at least one incident of physical transnational repression. Every incident catalogued in the project is not mapped.
COUNTRY CASE STUDIES
These are six countries that currently operate aggressive campaigns of transnational repression.
Assassination, Rendition, Unlawful Deportation, Assault, Spyware, Family Intimidation, Digital Threat, Interpol Abuse, Mobility Controls
Minority ethnic and religious groups, human rights defenders, former insiders.
Rendition, Digital Threat, Family Intimidation, Interpol Abuse, Mobility Controls
Members of the Gülen movement, supporters of Kurdish autonomy, and leftists.
Assassination, Rendition, Spyware, Family Intimidation, Digital Threat, Mobility Controls
Members of the diaspora, especially those that challenge the government politically or question its version of Rwandan history.
Assassination, Rendition, Spyware, Family Intimidation, Digital Threat, Mobility Controls
Political critics of the Saudi monarchy.
Assassination, Rendition, Unlawful Deportation, Digital Threat, Spyware, Interpol Abuse
Former insiders and defectors that threaten the Russian regime. Chechens face extreme threats from the Chechen Republic.
Assassination, Rendition, Spyware, Family Intimidation, Digital Threat, Interpol Abuse, Mobility Controls
Political opponents of the ruling regime.
A GRAVE THREAT TO
Democracy & Freedom
Origin country tactics that physically reach the individual targeted.
- Physical intimidation
- Unexplained disappearance
- Rendition, i.e. abduction or kidnapping
Long Distance Threats
Origin country tactics that do not require physically reaching the individual targeted.
- Coercion-by-proxy such as family intimidation
- Digital threat
When origin countries restrict individuals’ ability to travel.
- Passport revocation
- Denial of consular service, including issuing or renewing passports
- Reporting passports as lost or stolen in order to detain individuals in transit
Co-opting other countries
When origin countries manipulate host country institutions like police or immigration authorities to harass, detain, or transfer individuals.
- Unlawful deportation
- Interpol abuse
A CALL FOR
Accountability & Resilience
Leaders must end impunity and limit opportunities to target exiles.
US Domestic Policy
- Examine potential updates to the US criminal code to enable the apprehension and prosecution of perpetrators, including through laws criminalizing espionage against refugees, and harassment from abroad against US-based refugees.
- Ensure the United States maintains a robust refugee resettlement program to protect victims of transnational repression.
- Establish standardized outreach procedures for law enforcement engagement with vulnerable communities.
- Provide law enforcement training on transnational repression to better assist its victims and identify its perpetrators.
- Invest in “digital hygiene” trainings among targeted communities, reaching beyond professional activist and journalism circles.
- Increase engagement with law enforcement institutions that may encounter transnational repression in their work.
US Foreign Policy
- Impose targeted sanctions against those engaging in acts of transnational repression, including renditions and assassinations.
- Restrict security assistance to countries that persecute exiles and diasporas abroad.
- When reviewing export licensing applications, give extra scrutiny to applications for companies exporting products to countries rated as Not Free or Partly Free by Freedom House, in order to limit the export of commercial surveillance tools.
- Combat Interpol abuse by leveraging US influence in the organization to improve due process and punish abuse and by passing S. 2483, the Transnational Repression and Accountability Prevention (TRAP) Act.
- Release the CIA’s assessment of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
- Strengthen refugee resettlement programs, including by increasing quotas for accepting refugees and streamlining resettlement procedures
- Increase outreach to communities within democracies known to be targets for transnational repression. Targeted communities must know whom they can turn to and feel they can trust law enforcement.
- Restrict the export of censorship and surveillance technology.
A Tajik opposition activist applies for asylum but is deported from Austria to Tajikistan, where he is tortured and imprisoned.
An Iranian journalist in Europe wakes up and opens his phone to a stream of death threats from Iran.
The family of a Uighur in Canada is put in a labor camp in China—when the family gets out, they call and warn their exiled daughter to keep quiet while a Chinese official looks on.
A Russian man who fled to the United States when security services stole his business is held on a frivolous Interpol notice and kept in US immigration detention for a year and a half.
A Rwandan opposition leader is abducted while in transit through the United Arab Emirates and reappears three days later in Kigali, facing trial for “terrorism.”
A Turkish teacher is pulled off the streets of Kosovo and bundled onto an airplane to Turkey.
Saudi officials asphyxiate and dismember a Saudi journalist inside the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
All of these are examples of “transnational repression,” or countries targeting their diasporas and exiles abroad in order to silence them. All of these are real events that happened in the last six years, emblematic of an enormous and growing threat to activists, journalists, and migrants the world over. All over the world, states are employing a diverse and aggressive toolbox of tactics to control their citizens, or sometimes even non-citizens, abroad.
This report is the product of an effort to understand the scale and scope of “transnational repression,” in which governments reach across national borders to silence dissent among their diaspora and exile communities. Freedom House assembled cases of transnational repression from public sources, including UN and government documents, human rights reports, and credible news outlets, in order to generate a detailed picture of this global phenomenon.
The project compiled a catalogue of 608 direct, physical cases of transnational repression since 2014. In each incident, the origin country’s authorities physically reached an individual living abroad, whether through detention, assault, physical intimidation, unlawful deportation, rendition, or suspected assassination. The list includes 31 origin states conducting physical transnational repression in 79 host countries. This total is certainly only partial; hundreds of other physical cases that lacked sufficient documentation, especially detentions and unlawful deportations, are not included in Freedom House’s count. Nevertheless, even this conservative enumeration shows that what often appear to be isolated incidents—an assassination here, a kidnapping there—in fact represent a pernicious and pervasive threat to human freedom and security.
Moreover, physical transnational repression is only the tip of the iceberg. The consequences of each physical attack ripple out into a larger community. And beyond the physical cases compiled for this report are the much more widespread tactics of “everyday” transnational repression: digital threats, spyware, and coercion by proxy, such as the imprisonment of exiles’ families. For millions of people around the world, transnational repression has become not an exceptional tool, but a common and institutionalized practice used by dozens of regimes to control people outside their borders.
Freedom House’s research shows that:
- Transnational repression is becoming a “normal” phenomenon. The global review identified more governments, using the same tools, in more incidents than is typically understood. The states that run transnational repression campaigns deploy a broad spectrum of tactics against their perceived enemies, from spyware and family intimidation to renditions or assassinations.
- Most physical transnational repression involves co-opting host governments in order to reach exiles. The most common forms of transnational repression—detentions and unlawful deportations at the origin state’s request—entail exploitation of the host country’s institutions. Most renditions also involve working closely with host country authorities to illegally transfer people to the origin country. In this way, transnational repression directly undermines the rule of law in the targeted host country.
- The consequences for transnational repression are currently insufficient to deter further abuse. Stopping transnational repression will require reestablishing international norms that support universal due process and punish extraterritorial violence.
- The full spectrum of transnational repression tactics matters. Online harassment, coercion by proxy, mobility controls, and use of spyware do not garner the same level of attention as assassinations, but these less visible forms of transnational repression are intimately connected to physical attacks. Any effective response to transnational repression needs to address this continuum of practices.
The report consists of an introduction, a description of the methods of transnational repression, case studies on six states—China, Rwanda, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—conducting significant transnational repression campaigns, regional summaries covering countries not in the case studies, and recommendations.
Freedom House’s recommendations focus on what policymakers can do to hold perpetrators accountable for transnational repression and increase resilience within democracies.
Consistent accountability, especially in the form of targeted sanctions, will raise the cost of transnational repression for the regimes in question. Resilience efforts, especially measures that reduce opportunities for authoritarian states to manipulate institutions within democracies, will make it harder to attack exiles and diaspora communities in practice.
A thorough approach to resilience must include the recognition that excessively harsh policies intended to deter migrants and asylum seekers facilitate the external exploitation of a host country’s institutions, making it more likely that a persecuted individual will be denied asylum, deported, or otherwise mistreated. In order to proactively counter transnational repression, host countries should build trust with migrants through sustained outreach that informs them about their rights and the resources available to protect them.
Transnational repression is a serious threat to human rights and to democracy around the world, but with accountability for perpetrators and compassion for its targets, it can be stopped.
The project was made possible through the generous support of the Achelis and Bodman Foundation.
To read more about the project, click here.
Data is available on request from Freedom House through email@example.com
. Please use the subject line “Transnational Repression Data Request.”
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