The Metropolitan police are examining allegations that the Eritrean embassy in London is illegally using a controversial diaspora tax to “punish and control” Eritreans living in the UK, it has emerged.
The Eritrean government has been criticised repeatedly over its use of the 2% recovery and reconstruction (RRT) tax it levies on the earnings of Eritreans abroad.
In December 2011, a UN security council resolution (pdf) called on Eritrea to “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”.
The same resolution accused Eritrea of using the tax to destabilise the Horn of Africa, saying some of the revenues were funding armed opposition groups in the region, including the militant group al-Shabaab.
Accusations that Eritrea was supporting the Somali group as a means of attacking its long-standing enemy, Ethiopia, had prompted the security council to impose an arms embargo on the country in 2009.
Concerns that the Eritrean embassy in London is using coercion or illicit means to collect the tax – such as refusing diaspora members basic consular services if they fail to pay it – have led the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to raise the matter with the Eritrean authorities on at least four occasions over the past four years.
In May 2011, the FCO notified the Eritrean ambassador that aspects of the diaspora tax may be unlawful and in breach of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, adding: “The ambassador was told that, until it was demonstrated otherwise, the embassy should suspend, immediately and in full, all activities relating to the collection of the tax.”
The Eritrean embassy says it no longer collects the tax in London. But UK-based Eritreans claim the tax is still being raised illegally – though they say the London embassy now requires it to be paid on their behalf in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
One Eritrean attempting to conclude his affairs in the country last year was told by the embassy that he needed to pay £350 in Eritrea, and that nothing would be settled without full payment of the fee, which included a £200 charge for the Eritrean military.
In March, a group of Eritreans reported the matter to the police and sent a dossier of allegations to the Met commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe.
Although Scotland Yard has not launched a formal investigation, officers from the Met’s parliamentary and diplomatic protection department are understood to be examining the dossier.
“The Metropolitan police service have been contacted by members of the Eritrean community regarding the alleged illegal extraction of taxes by their embassy,” said a Met spokesman. “Officers are assessing the information provided to them to establish whether any offence has been committed.”
The Foreign Office also said it was aware “of allegations over the use of harassment to collect revenue from members of the Eritrean diaspora in the UK”. A spokeswoman said that while the FCO did not believe the collection of taxes was illegal, “use of harassment and blackmail could be and we encouraged diaspora members with allegations of this kind to raise their concerns with the police”.
Noel Joseph, a UK-based Eritrean human rights activist, said the government in Asmara was using the tax to hold the diaspora to ransom.
“Basically, anything you need from the state – if you want to write a will or get a power-of-attorney for your family or to send parcels home or get a passport – you need a clearance document and you do not get the document without paying the 2% tax,” he said.
“It’s punishing people and exerting control. The message is: no matter how far you’ve gone, we will always find a way of affecting your life.”
It's punishing people … The message is: no matter how far you've gone, we will always find a way to affect your lifeNoel Joseph
Joseph said the Eritrean government was now trying to head off international scrutiny of the tax by instructing members of the diaspora to pay it in Asmara.
Calling on the UK and the international community to show “will and determination” in investigating the allegations, he added: “What the Eritrean government is doing is illegal – and they’re clearly flouting it – so they need to take drastic action. Eritrea needs to learn its lesson; it cannot just behave as it is. It’s against the law.”
The Eritrean embassy described the allegations as “baseless, ongoing, deliberate and distorted” and said the Eritrean government had never used coercive methods or intimidation to collect the tax.
“Although Eritrean tax evaders residing in the country are legally charged and convicted for their failure to comply with the taxation law, Eritreans residing abroad are not legally bound by this regulation,” it said in a statement.
“Eritrean citizens that fail to pay the 2% RRT however, are subject to administrative measures such as the ‘denial of business licence, land entitlement and other services’. This does not include basic consular services. These measures are not considered ‘extortion, coercion or intimidation’ by international law.”
A UN report published this week suggested that the Eritrean government’s systematic use of extrajudicial killing, torture, rape, indefinite national service and forced labour may amount to crimes against humanity.
The 500-page investigation by the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea catalogued a litany of human rights violations by the “totalitarian” regime of President Isaias Afwerki “on a scope and scale seldom witnessed elsewhere”.
It also accused the government of using a programme of imprisonment, forced disappearance, surveillance and censorship to create a culture of permanent fear and crush all dissent.