Eritrea’s ‘diaspora tax’ is funding violence and oppression

In most countries, citizens and residents pay tax to the state to receive basic services – they part with a certain percent of their income expecting roads, railways, hospitals and schools to be built and maintained, social and cultural services to be developed and the nation’s security to be ensured.

My home country, Eritrea, is not like most countries. Those living in this small, isolated low-income country on the Red Sea coast receive nothing other than anguish in exchange for their taxes. Eritrea’s roads are neglected, buildings are deteriorating and the very limited resources allocated to the country’s schools are used not to educate pupils but to indoctrinate them with state propaganda. The country’s taps have run dry, and only limited water is available for purchase in jerry cans. Electricity and petrol are also scarce and rationed.

In Eritrea, it seems, the tax revenue is used not to meet the needs of citizens, but to fund longtime President Isaias Afwerki’s gulag state and ill-conceived regional adventures. Indeed, in recent years Eritrea has repeatedly been in international headlines due to its involvement in the horrific conflict in neighbouring Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

We do not know how much tax the Eritrean state is able to collect from the citizens within its borders, because the reclusive regime does not share its financial records with the world. We can, however, assume the amount on its own is not sufficient to fund the government’s extensive military excursions. The country’s closed and heavily sanctioned economy has been on the verge of collapse for decades, and citizens within its borders – many of them forced to serve in the military for most of their adult lives – have little to no opportunity to generate taxable income. So how exactly does President Afwerki pay for his regime’s regional military misadventures?

It is impossible to know for certain, but most likely using the 2 percent income tax his regime levies on Eritrean citizens settled abroad.

This so-called “diaspora tax” was imposed on Eritreans across the globe for the first time in the 1990s, soon after Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia. Back then, most Eritreans abroad welcomed this new levy as an opportunity to contribute to the rebuilding of a country devastated by 30 years of conflict and to help the veterans of the liberation wars. The widespread understanding was that this would be a temporary arrangement and the tax would either be completely lifted or its scope and purpose better defined in law, once the parliament became fully functional and the economy stabilised. But that turning point was never reached. As the Eritrean parliament has not convened since 1997, the tax simply stayed in place, becoming one of the main sources of revenue of the regime.

Today, the diaspora tax continues to be collected by Eritrean consular offices around the world. Understandably, the Eritrean diaspora is not eager to pay a legally dubious tax that provides no benefit to themselves or their loved ones back home, but serves to keep a brutal and grossly incompetent government afloat.

So the Eritrean regime gives its embassies around the world free reign to use questionable tactics to collect the two percent income tax. Eritrean consulates demand proof of diaspora tax payment to provide even the most basic consular services. They refuse to issue ID cards or any other legal documents until the tax is paid. Citizens who do not pay cannot sell their properties in Eritrea or go home to visit their relatives. People who have never paid the tax can also face demands for massive back payments whenever they need any services from the Eritrean government.

The Eritreans in the diaspora are increasingly speaking up against the regime’s efforts to force their hand into paying an unjust tax with no basis in law that is likely being used to further repress the Eritrean people and fund conflicts in the volatile horn of Africa region. Eritrea’s diplomats, however, routinely deny that the tax is unjust or illegal, and often compare it with the federal income tax the US requires its citizens to pay while living abroad. This is an analogy riddled with fallacies. While there is much to criticise about Washington’s diaspora tax policies, they cannot be compared with those of Eritrea. The US government has negotiated double taxation treaties with various governments around the world, and does not blackmail its citizens to pay a tax with little legal basis by withholding basic government services.

For more than two decades, anyone who dared to stand up to Eritrea’s brutal regime – journalists, activists and opposition politicians – have been threatened, jailed, tortured or forcibly disappeared. People are not free to conduct business, pursue an education or participate in any political activity. Poverty and lack of basic resources are crippling and increasing forced military conscription is killing any possibility of a youth-led grassroots uprising. Eritrea’s ongoing rights crisis is driving Eritreans into exile, ensuring that the country remains one of the leading contributors to the global refugee population. With no opposition to his rule, President Afwerki continues to run Eritrea as if it is an open prison, using the country’s limited resources to further his political ambitions and destabilise the region.

As the hands of the local population are all but tied, the group best placed to change the country’s fortunes is the Eritrean diaspora. They can capitalise on the freedoms they enjoy in the countries they live in to put a spotlight on President Afwerki’s crimes and the injustices he inflicts on Eritrean citizens.

Right now, the Eritrean diaspora can take a united stance against the Eritrean regime by cutting one of its main channels of revenue: the diaspora tax. To achieve this, Eritreans abroad should encourage the governments of the countries they are residing in to take action against the collection of this illegal tax within their borders. In November 2022, a group of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom called for an investigation into the Eritrean diaspora tax, voicing their concern that the levy has been used to fund Eritrea’s war effort in Tigray. Similar calls and investigations have been made in other European countries with significant Eritrean populations, such as the Netherlands, in the past. These efforts should be expanded to other countries, and the international community should start putting pressure on the Eritrean regime to end this unjust and illegal practice.

This way Eritreans living around the world can stop their earnings from being used to fund Afwerki regime’s involvement in regional wars and start paving the way for the emergence of a new Eritrea that reflects the values of its citizens.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.