Transnational Repression: State Terror That Goes Beyond National Borders

Jean-Baptiste Greuze: Fear, Expression Head // Public domain

A Saudi journalist enters the consulate of his state in Istanbul and never comes out. A former Russian intelligence officer and his daughter are poisoned by a nerve agent in the United Kingdom. A Ryanair passenger plane flying from Athens to Vilnius is diverted by Belarusian authorities who arrest two passengers. Two Chinese men are arrested in New York City for running a policing outpost, monitoring, threatening, and coercing their fellow Chinese immigrants living in the US. These cases of “transnational repression” made headlines all over the world.

The gruesome assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-based Saudi journalist, the assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal, a former Russian officer, and his daughter, Yulia, in 2018, the arrest of Belarusian opposition activist Roman Protasevich in 2021, and the arrest of Lu Jianwang and Chen Jinping give us little glimpses into the dangers faced by emigrants from autocracies. Countless other similar cases did not make it into Western media or were never even discovered. What is this phenomenon, why do we keep seeing it, and what can liberal democracies do to protect immigrants on their soil?

Transnational repression, as defined by a Freedom House report, describes how authoritarian states reach across national borders to silence dissent and critical voices among diaspora and exile communities. It is essentially an assortment of methods that a state can use to subdue its own citizens living outside of its territory. Freedom House first drew attention to this phenomenon in their 2021 report, “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach.”

Their latest report concerning this issue in 2023, titled “Still Not Safe: Transnational Repression in 2022,” found that at least 854 direct physical incidents of transnational repression have been committed by 38 governments in 91 countries since 2014, including assassinations, abductions, assaults, detentions, and unlawful deportations. China, Turkey, Tajikistan, Russia, and Egypt were identified as the most prolific perpetrators of acts of transnational repression. Besides this list of compiled cases, there are undoubtedly countless others that go undetected and others that did not involve physical attacks.

Transnational repression is not a new phenomenon. Perhaps the most well-known example is the assassination of Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s exiled critic, who was murdered in Mexico by an NKVD agent in 1940. However, recent technological developments and the spread of new digital technologies and social media have allowed transnational repression to become ubiquitous and much more insidious, potentially threatening the rights and freedoms of dissidents and activists living in exile all over the world.

In the aftermath of the “War on Terror,” the global campaign initiated by the United States after the 9/11 attacks, there has been a global shift towards illiberalism and the implementation of policies in the name of preventing terrorism, which provide excuses for autocracies to extend their repressive strategies beyond state borders. In recent times, Russia’s devastating war against Ukraine has intensified patterns of transnational repression in Ukraine, Russia, Central Asia, and Europe, as Russia has intensified its crackdown on critics of the war. Furthermore, because Ukraine was home to many political exiles, whose situation has now become even more precarious.

Why do authoritarian regimes crack down so harshly on their exiled critics? According to Dr. Gerasimos Tsourapas, a prominent academic researching this topic, transnational authoritarianism emerged out of autocracies’ contradictory aspirations as they sought to resolve what he calls an “illiberal paradox”: the contrast between the economic need to allow mass emigration and the political urge to maintain control over opposition and criticism.

Historically, authoritarian regimes prioritized political goals over economic ones by tightly controlling emigration. For example, during the Cold War, Eastern European communist countries feared an exodus of dissatisfied citizens and closed their borders to prevent it. Others, like Cuba, allowed selective emigration as a “safety valve” strategy to stabilize the regime by getting rid of vocal opponents.

However, in today’s globalized world and with the growing economic interconnectedness, most authoritarian states do allow emigration for numerous reasons, including the benefit they gain from the remittances that migrants send home and the decrease in unemployment when those who cannot find a job locally decide to leave. A notable exception to this phenomenon is North Korea, which still prioritises its political goals in this matter. Some countries also try to limit the emigration of their citizens, by providing university education that is conditional on working in the country for a given number of years, Hungary being an example of strict rules limiting the emigration of university students.

Citizens living abroad are of concern for authoritarian countries for myriad reasons: they may challenge autocracies through activism in the diaspora, have a say over political processes through out-of-country voting (if that is an option and if there are democratic elections in the country of origin), and send remittances home to their families, which can either strengthen or destabilise authoritarian regimes. Moreover, expatriates can spread information about social and political norms, such as democratic values in their countries of origin, thus destabilising the rule of autocrats. Transnational repression allows authoritarian regimes to maximise the material benefits of allowing emigration while minimising the associated political and security costs to their power. But how does this happen?

Strategies of authoritarian control over citizens come in many forms. The first one is surveillance, which is made easier by new technologies and social media. For example, Pegasus, an Israeli spyware, was used by several governments to spy on journalists and political dissenters in their own countries and abroad. But it is not the only way governments use to keep an eye on their citizens abroad.

According to a 2011 report by Amnesty International, Syrian authorities recorded protests and demonstrations and monitored the mobile phone usage of their citizens who sought refuge in various EU countries and the US. After the attempted coup against Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in 2016, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) reportedly gave German intelligence a list of over 300 people who supported the movement of Fethullah Gülen, linked to the coup attempt, to be monitored. Instead, the Germans warned these people to be careful and to avoid Turkey and Turkish consulates.

Switzerland and Austria have also complained about Turkish spying on dissidents in their countries. More recently, it has come to light that China is operating more than a hundred secret police stations globally. The stations allegedly aim to harass and silence Chinese emigrants living in various countries around the world, including in the US and various EU countries, including France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and the Netherlands. China has previously denied running these stations, calling them “service centres” for nationals overseas, which are meant to assist Chinese citizens living abroad with administrative procedures, such as renewing their identity documents.

However, human rights groups have accused China of using these outposts to threaten and monitor Chinese nationals abroad, even forcing some to return to China. The FBI tied the stations to China’s “Operation Fox Hunt”, which started six years ago with the stated aim of pursuing corrupt officials and executives who had fled China, but in reality it targets all Chinese nationals who are seen as threats to the regime of Xi Jinping. As a consequence of being constantly watched, émigrés from these countries self-censor in their new countries of residence to avoid being punished and pursued.

Issuing threats is the next step that governments take to repress their exiled citizens. This was a favored method of Muammar Gaddafi, the former Libyan dictator who called emigrants “stray dogs”, “escaped hirelings”, and traitors, and frequently threatened them in his speeches. Violence against emigrants was commonplace during his rule over Libya. The most famous instance of this was when Al-Sadek Hamed al-Shuwehdy, a Libyan who studied in the United States was forcibly brought back to his home country in 1984 and publicly executed for “betraying his country.”

This leads us to another method of control that authoritarian regimes use, namely forcing emigrants to return. This practice is becoming increasingly common since China’s crackdown on the Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group living in the North-West of China, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Since Beijing’s crackdown on the ethnic group has started, millions have been locked up in “reeducation centres”, (as China euphemistically calls these internment camps) and countless others have fled the country.

In 2017, hundreds of Uyghurs living in Egypt were arrested and handed over to Chinese authorities. After their return to China, many were never seen again. In other cases, Uyghurs studying abroad were ordered to return home, with Chinese authorities holding their families hostage. Turkey also forces people to return, but it has also trodden on the norms of statecraft by using Interpol in its machinations. Turkey flooded Interpol with requests to extradite or provide information on Erdoğan’s political targets in various European countries after the attempted coup in 2016.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor at the time condemned Turkey’s political exploitation of Interpol, nonetheless this method remained useful for Turkish transnational repression, leading to the detentions of German-Turkish writer Doğan Akhanli and Swedish-Turkish journalist Hamza Yalçin in August 2017, and the unlawful deportations of two individuals accused of membership in the PKK from Serbia and Bulgaria.

Enforced disappearance is another common strategy. A famous example of this is when it was used in Operation Condor, the US-backed campaign of political repression and state terrorism involving intelligence operations, coup d’états, and assassinations in South America from the 1960s until the 1990s. Tens of thousands have disappeared in the Operation, including hundreds of political émigrés from various South American countries. The precise numbers and the whereabouts of many of these people are still unknown.

Some of these cases are very opaque, and we can only suspect that the atrocities were committed by states. In others, the perpetrators are not particularly concerned with covering their tracks. In 2014, Rwandan former intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya was murdered in South Africa. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been ruling his country with an iron fist for three decades subsequently commented on the case by saying that “whoever betrays the country will pay the price.”

Turkey also boasts of the arrest and rendition (essentially kidnapping) of more than a hundred individuals that they branded as “terrorists” from 27 countries. Adopting the United States’ terminology, the pro-government Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah regularly features articles on the government’s crackdown campaign in a section of its website called “The War on Terror.”

Autocrats also differ in their choice of targets. For instance, China pursues a wide variety of people: religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Uyghurs, but also political dissenters, activists, and journalists. Turkey focuses mostly on Kurds, leftists, and those affiliated in any way with the movement of religious leader Fethullah Gülen, whom the government blames for the coup attempt in 2016. Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, usually target their outspoken critics or former insiders – the Skripal assassination attempt and Khashoggi’s murder are cases in point.

The responses from the international community to these attacks vary. Geopolitics doubtlessly plays an important part in determining the severity of liberal democracies’ reaction. While the case of the Chinese police stations led to outrage and investigations in almost all affected countries, a report by Freedom Initiative, a Washington-based NGO claimed that the US is much more lenient towards its allies, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which often commit very similar acts of transnational repression to those of China. European authorities are hesitant to react harshly to Turkey’s actions because the MİT is the intelligence agency of their NATO partner. Various EU states have, however, curbed the Diyanet, Turkey’s State Directorate for Religious Affairs, which manages thousands of mosques across Europe and maintains control over diaspora populations.

The prospects are bleak. New technology is making it cheaper and easier than ever to oppress people from a distance. Social media facilitates state’s monitoring and harassing efforts and allows them to be more aware of their émigrés’ discontent, while spyware allows oppressors to listen in on their targets’ conversations and even read their private messages. Emigrants in turn self-censor to try and avoid detection.

Transnational repression thus leads to a chilling effect, which is exactly what autocrats aim for. This coerced silence will become part of a new normal, unless liberal democratic states act to ensure the protection of émigrés. As part of this process, the international community has to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable, immigrants are protected, and liberal norms are respected internationally. EU countries should crack down on transnational repression by establishing clear red lines, with high costs for crossing them.

Europe-based companies, such as the Italian RCS SpA, which aided Syria in monitoring its citizens abroad, should be restricted from selling surveillance technology to authoritarian regimes. Asylum programmes should be streamlined and expanded, so that potential targets of transnational repression do not need to wait for asylum in unsafe countries for a long time. The EU’s controversial migration deal with Turkey, and formerly with Libya, are cases in point.

Furthermore, host countries should also increase their efforts on their own soil; immigrants who are isolated from the majority society are at risk of transnational repression, and host countries need to increase their efforts to integrate migrants and diaspora communities. Lastly, law enforcement agencies should be trained in understanding, identifying and coping with cases of transnational repression; Interpol, which was mentioned before in relation to transnational repression attempts, is clearly vulnerable to the manipulation of authoritarian states. Lacking these safeguards against transnational repression emboldens authoritarian regimes and puts dissidents in a vulnerable position.

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Sara Kende
Republikon Institute