This month the Canadian government is expelling the head of Eritrea’s consulate in Toronto for collecting a ‘two per cent tax’ from every Eritrean living in Canada, the money from which is sent to the Eritrean government. To many Canadians the expulsion of a diplomat for this reason might appear absurd; after all why shouldn’t resident Eritreans voluntarily contribute to develop their homeland?
In fact the tax, one of many levied on members of the global Eritrean diaspora by the Eritrean government, is a compulsory fee which is collected by officials in Eritrean embassies and consulates from every adult, every year. Indeed Eritreans must pay this ‘tax’ even if they are unemployed (from their unemployment benefits if necessary). The reason why nearly all Eritreans pay up boils down to a combination of history, culture, and fear. The Diaspora has backed the ruling political party in Eritrea since the late 1970s when, as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, it fought for Eritrean independence against Ethiopia. The culmination of that revolution in 1991, which gave birth to Africa’s newest nation in 1993, was the subject of widespread jubilation and hope in the Diaspora.
Culturally, the Diaspora is fairly conservative. The vast majority living in the West are Christian – members of the Orthodox Christian Church and/or adherents of evangelical churches – or Sunni Muslims; most of the older generation have limited formal education and are poorly integrated into Canadian society. At the time most Eritrean refugees fled their homeland, it was a province of Ethiopia that was engulfed by war and drought. Many Eritreans lived in The Sudan, Egypt, Libya or elsewhere for many years prior to being accepted for resettlement in the West. During that time they supported the liberation of their country from Ethiopia by fighting against Ethiopia, and/or by providing material support to one of the liberation fronts. Many have come to believe that the party/government which they have supported is under siege by Ethiopia following a massive and highly destructive war between the two countries which formally ended in December 2000 following Ethiopia’s occupation of disputed Eritrean territory and the Algiers Agreement.
Finally (and unsurprisingly, given the mountain of evidence documenting the extent and nature of human rights abuses carried out by the Eritrean government, particularly after the end of the Eritrea-Ethiopian war), members of the Diaspora fear their government. Thus even though hundreds of thousands of individuals from all walks of life have fled Eritrea since 2001 – including the thousands who fled to The Sudan and thence to Libya only to drown in the Mediterranean, the thousands more who have been trafficked and subjected to death and ransom in the Sinai, the estimated 40,000 currently seeking asylum in Israel, and the 92,000 currently in refugee camps in Ethiopia – the Diaspora fears Eritrean officials. Their fear is quite rational. Payment of tax and other levies imposed on them by the Eritrean government, and collected personally from them in exile by diplomats or party supporters, is a surety for the well-being and continued safety of relatives still living in Eritrea. When an individual in Eritrea seeks permission to improve a house, obtain a loan, open a shop etc., they must satisfy officials that family members living overseas have paid their taxes. If relatives in the Diaspora have not paid, family in Eritrea pay the price.
Where then does the levy on the Diaspora fit into the wider picture? Why should Canada and other countries be concerned about the money coerced from the Diaspora? Bearing in mind the secrecy which prevails in Eritrea, there is little reliable data about the country other than the continuing haemorrhage of its population who are estimated to be fleeing the country at a rate of 4,000 individuals per month. In 2007 it was estimated that Eritrea’s exports were worth only US$20 million, while it imported goods worth approximately US$700 million; indeed the war with Ethiopia deprived it not only of its largest market but also of its single largest source of foreign exchange in the form of payments for the use of its ports to import goods into Ethiopia. How then has Eritrea sustained an economy that has been on a war footing for well over a decade, which has no private sector to speak of, and which is monopolized by state/party officials?
For many years government expenditure has been supported by ‘taxing’ the Diaspora in wonderfully ingenious ways. For instance there is evidence that officials: (a) play a pivotal role in trafficking Eritreans out of the country (individuals bribe officials to escape prison and leave the country and later, when their relatives are compelled to ransom them from ‘Bedouin’ in the Sinai, that money is paid into official accounts in Asmara); (b) families whose members flee the country are fined the equivalent of US$3,300; and (c) tens of thousands of individuals are ‘conscripted’ not only into the military but also to work on government projects, many of which directly benefit senior military officers (who are also involved in many illegal activities). Then there is the Diaspora ‘tax’. In 2007 the total value of that tax was estimated at US$400 million per year. The proceeds of the tax are not used for development, nor are they used to build schools or health facilities, rather it is used by the very officials who suspended the constitution, who have refused to hold elections, and who imprison anyone who speaks out against the government. The tax subsidizes the lives of the elite and it purchases arms; possibly it also pays the salaries of Eritrean diplomats.
A second and increasingly important source of foreign exchange for the Eritrean government is foreign investment. Despite sanctions against Eritrea, a small number of western companies have been attracted by the possibility of exploiting the countries untapped mineral wealth. The Canadian firm ‘Nevsun-Resources’ – followed by Australia’s South Boulder Mines, Canada’s Sunridge Gold, and the China SFECO Group – has invested and developed the Bisha gold fields which contain extensive deposits including 330,000 ounces of gold, 10,300,000 ounces of silver, 860,000,000 pounds of copper and 1,890,000,000 pounds of zinc. However, as Human Rights Watch (2013) has noted,
The company does not appear to know for certain whether conscript laborers have been forced to work at Bisha or not. Its efforts to investigate the allegations have been obstructed by Segen [a state-owned company] itself, and Nevsun has professed itself powerless to compel its contractor to cooperate. When Nevsun sought to interview Segen workers in an effort to reassure itself that the company was not complicit in abuse Segen refused to allow it. When Nevsun repeatedly sought to investigate the living conditions of Segen workers at their camp near the mine site Segen barred them from entering. When the Bisha project attempted to carry out new construction work in early 2012 without re-engaging Segen the Eritrean government ordered it to stop. Segen was brought back on.
The Eritrean government provides poorly paid (military) conscript labour to work the mine and it holds a 30 per cent stake in the Bisha goldfields, which means that profits earned by Nevsun directly support a government which has repeatedly been found to be a ‘pariah state’ – one which systematically abuses its citizens and which has repeatedly funded armed opposition to other governments in the region.
Should these awkward facts concern Canadians? The short answer is that for many years the situation, though well known, has been ignored. However the tendency to look away from unpalatable events which occur in distant and unimportant countries ended recently when the UN Security Council – which itself was pushed by certain states to take action against Eritrea – passed Resolution 1907 in December 2009 following an armed Eritrean incursion into Djibouti. The Security Council imposed an arms embargo, travel restrictions, and an asset freeze on Eritrea and required it to cease arming, training, and equipping armed groups and their members, including Al-Shabaab, which aimed to destabilize the region or incite violence and civil strife in Djibouti. It further demanded that Eritrea cease facilitating travel and other forms of financial support to individuals or entities designated by the Committee established pursuant to resolution 751 (1992) regarding Somalia and other sanctions committees, in particular the Committee established pursuant to resolution 1267 (1999) regarding al‑Qaeda and the Taliban.
Eritrea protested in the strongest terms that sanctions were wrong, but it failed to provide evidence that it was complying with the order. Indeed sanctions were renewed and enhanced in 2012, partly in response to persistent petitions by Ethiopia, who is not a neutral party to events in the region and who had sent its armed forces into the disputed border area to attack Eritrean security forces. The rationale for enhancing sanctions was that Eritrea was "continuing to provide support to armed groups seeking to destabilize Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa". At about the same time the UN Human Rights Council appointed a Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, tasked with reporting on the human rights situation in Eritrea. Yet again Eritrea protested the appointment of such a person, but officials have pointedly refused to speak to her or to allow her into Eritrea to speak with Eritreans.
Why should Canadians be concerned about Eritrea? Well, if the facts discussed here don't disturb you – the involvement of Eritrean officials in a huge extortion racket which has cost many Eritreans their lives; the extensive food shortages in Eritrea caused by poor policies and official indifference to suffering; the indefinite military conscription of most Eritreans (including children); the persecution of Chrisitans; Eritrea's disproportionately large number of refugees given its size; the repeated attempts of Eritrean officials to destabilize their neighbours at a massive cost in human and financial terms – then you have no reason for concern. If, however, you feel something is not quite right about what is happening in Eritrea and how events there are affecting Canadian citizens, then you could encourage the Government to investigate and act against abuses of Canadian citizens, and you could ask Nevsun and SunRidge Gold why they have invested in Eritrea and become complicit in human rights abuses in the process. If you ask these questions, then just maybe Eritrea might once again have a future which all Eritreans living at home and abroad, along with their supporters, can be proud of.