Wednesday, February 12, 2014

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Eritrean dictatorship still Extorting Millions in 'Diaspora Tax' Scam

--Eritreans in Britain forced by embassy to pay 2% diaspora tax
A 2011 UN resolution demanded Eritrea halts the tax on expats, but evidence shows embassy extortion continues
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Martin Plaut, Tuesday 11 February 2014 11.37 GMT
MDG : Eritrea tax : Plaque outside Eritrean Embassy, London
The Eritrean diaspora tax was condemned by the UN security council in 2011 'because it was being used to fund arms and related material'. Photograph: Alamy
On the morning of the 18 December last year Sam* walked up the narrow steps of a nondescript building in the back streets of Islington, north London. He was visiting the Eritrean embassy to inquire about his "clearance". This is the process every Eritrean in the diaspora must undergo if they want to have any dealings with their home country.

However, being cleared entails paying a 2% tax on all UK earnings to the Eritrean authorities. Without clearance Sam could not have his passport renewed, apply for a business permit in his home country, or even send a parcel of secondhand clothes to his family.

The diaspora tax was banned by the UN security council in 2011 (pdf). Resolution 2023, supported by the UK, condemned the tax because it was being used to fund "arms and related material" for rebel groups across the Horn of Africa.

These included the Somali militant group al-Shabaab, an al-Qaida affiliate. Eritrea supported al-Shabaab as an indirect means of attacking Ethiopia, its long-standing enemy.

In May 2011 the Foreign Office notified the Eritrean authorities that "aspects of the collection of a tax levied by the Eritrean government on Eritreans living in the UK may be unlawful and in breach of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. 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."

Despite this warning, the Foreign Office is aware that pressure on British Eritreans to pay the tax has continued. Lady Warsi, the senior minister of state at the Foreign Office, confirmed in a written reply to Lady Kinnock that the Eritrean ambassador had been warned he must comply with the resolution to desist from illicit means of collecting revenue from members of the Eritrean diaspora in the UK. "On 20 December 2012, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials raised these concerns with the Eritrean ambassador and reminded him of UN SCR 2023," Warsi wrote.

Yet a year later, when Sam arrived at the embassy, he was informed he had no option but to pay the illegal tax. "If you have anything to do or there is any query," an embassy staff member told him. "You will have to pay it all and get clearance. You will not be able to do anything without clearance."

Hidden camera footage of Sam at the Eritrean embassy in London from YouTube
"We are aware of allegations over the use of harassment to collect revenue from members of the Eritrean diaspora in the UK," Warsi wrote. "On 20 December 2012, Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials raised these concerns with the Eritrean ambassador and reminded him of UN SCR 2023."

The sums involved can be substantial. Tax is claimed when an Eritrean turns 18 – even students are expected to contribute £50 a year. Upon reaching adulthood, Sam was told he had to pay the full tax. "However, after [reaching 18] and until 2013 you need to bring a payslip, a P60 or anything that indicates your income. When you come with all these documents, then you can pay the 2% tax."

Backpaying 17 years of taxes would have been a huge burden for Sam, who has a young family to support. "I need to get a mortgage to pay all this," he joked with the embassy staff as he turned to leave. Having no intention of paying the tax, he had secretly recorded the entire exchange on video.

The allegation that staff continue to demand payment of the 2% is supported by receipts obtained from other Eritreans, dated after May 2011, when the practice was outlawed by the UN.

The taxation of the Eritrean diaspora, many of whom live just above the breadline, has been challenged by a group of Eritrean women. Team Eritrea, as they are known, are requesting that the British government ends its toleration of the illegal tax. "It is extortion from some of the poorest people in our community, who just want to help their families back home," says Feruz Werede, who is leading the campaign.

But the campaigners want the Foreign Office to go further. They are calling on the British government to follow the Canadian example and expel the Eritrean ambassador. In May 2013, fed up with repeated – and false – assurances from the Eritrean authorities, Canada's foreign affairs minister, John Baird, expelled the Eritrean consul in Toronto, Semere Ghebremariam O Micael, declaring: "Today's actions speak for themselves."

The UK diaspora fears the extortion will continue unless decisive action is taken. Eritrea is among the most repressive countries in the world, and the funds sent from Britain through this tax assist the regime in maintaining its hold over the beleaguered population.

*Sam's name has been withheld to protect his identity

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Eritrea Dictatorship Extorts Millions of Pounds in 'Diaspora Tax' Scam

EXCLUSIVE: Video Evidence Shows Eritrea Embassy Extorting UK Refugees Diaspora TaxIBTimes UK
New video evidence exclusively obtained by IBTimes UK has confirmed that the Eritrean government still collects a controversial "diaspora tax" from nationals living in the UK - despite assurances by British officials that the practice has been stopped.

Secretly filmed footage inside the Eritrean embassy in London shows one Eritran, known as Simon T, who fled the secretive Horn of Africa state in the early 1990s and has lived since in Britain, was forced to pay the 2% income tax from the moment he was employed with an insurance company in Romford, Essex.

The taped interview with an embassy official demonstrates that those such as Simon T who have not required consular services for several years are required to pay "arrears" for the years in which they did not pay the tax.

"It's extortion, especially with the dictatorial government that we have in Eritrea, run by one man, with no election and no rule of law," Simon T, who is in his early 30s, told IBTimes UK.

"In Eritrea you cannot even ask if your loved ones are in prison because you are going to be locked up as well," he claimed.

The collection of a 2% income tax on Eritrean nationals living abroad violates UN resolution 2023 which condemns Eritrea's use of the tax to "destabilise the Horn of Africa region and to violate the sanctions regime". Some of the money is used to procure weapons for Islamic militants.

The UN Security Council hardened sanctions against Eritrea in December 2011 over its alleged support for Islamist militant groups such as Somalia's al-Shabaab.

Whitehall officially supports a series of UN resolutions imposing sanctions against Eritrea.

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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had earlier sought to curb Eritrean diplomats who were collecting the tax in the UK from up to 40,000 refugees in the UK on the grounds that the money was used by the Eritrean government to destabilise the region.

In May 2011, the Eritrean ambassador in London was informed that the collection of the tax could be unlawful and breach the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. The Foreign Office told the ambassador to stop all activities relating to its collection.

But in July 2013 a special investigation by IBTimes UK, supported by hard evidence such as order transfer order slips and payment confirmation, revealed that it was still happening in Britain.

Eden (not her real name) was forced to pay thousands of pounds in diaspora tax after authorities threatened her parents in Asmara that their family business licence would not be renewed.

The FCO told IBTimes UK at that time: "We are aware of allegations over the use of harassment to collect revenue from members of the Eritrean diaspora in the UK.

"On 20 December, 2012, FCO officials raised these concerns with the Eritrean ambassador and reminded him of UN Security Council resolution 2023. [The UK supports the resolution] which condemned Eritrea's use of the diaspora tax to destabilise the Horn of Africa region and decided that Eritrea should cease using illicit means to collect the tax," the spokesperson said.

The new evidence

Video evidence of 2% tax collection in the UK
Video evidence of 2% tax collection in the UK
The fresh video, which was filmed with a hidden camera on 18 December 2013 in premises at 96 White Lion St. – the north London site of the Eritrean embassy – clearly displays an exchange between Simon T and an embassy official over the 2% tax. The tax is mentioned in the video.

The Eritrean-British national is asked why he had not paid the tax since he turned 18 in 1996. In reply, Simon says that he was a student until 2001, when he finished university.

He is then asked to bring proof of education:

Embassy official: OK, you know you were under age until 1996 and then from then until 2001, in education. Proof is needed of if you were under social services and so on.

Simon T: Well, I was under social services from 1995-97 but not after that. I was living in a children's home

EO: OK, from 1996-2004 what were you doing? Were you working, studying? You have to bring proof. Anyway, even if you were a student, £50 a year is paid by everyone. For the rest, until 2013 you have to provide proof of income.

Before 1996, you don't need to. However, after and until 2013 you need to bring a payslip, a P60 or anything that indicates your income. When you come with all these documents, then you can pay the 2% tax.

The total amount that Simon T has to pay ranges from £5,000 to £10,000, which has to be remitted directly to Eritrean banks.

Several Eritreans have described the tax as a "consular service" for any citizen wishing to renew their passport or Eritrean holders of foreign passports requesting a visa to visit Eritrea. Every national must produce documentation of the tax payments they made in their host country and on this basis the 2% tax is calculated.

Without the tax certificate, it is impossible to get a passport renewed or an entry or exit visa. It is also impossible to undertake a number of unofficial transactions, such as remitting the money back to the families or simply sending old clothes.

Torture, arbitrary detention and severe restrictions on freedom of expression are routine in the so-called "North Korea of Africa".

Mandatory military service imposed on all men and women between 18 and 55 is one of the main causes of flight from the country.

It has been calculated that 4,000 Eritreans leave the country every month.

"Every Eritrean family has sacrificed brothers, sisters, aunties and uncles. This is not what we dreamed for our country," Simon, who is father of two girls, said. "I can't let this happen in England."

"If we can stop this financial aid starting from here we will have a change," he said.

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Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Eritrea under fire for rights abuses at UN review

Geneva — Enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture were just a few of the violations Eritrea was accused of during a UN review of its human rights record Monday.
Diplomats gathered at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva condemned the isolated and autocratic country's brutal repression of basic rights, charging the lack of freedom was prompting a mass exodus.
The government of Eritrea's "widespread violation of human rights and the lack of prospects for participatory democracy contribute to large numbers of Eritreans fleeing the country," US representative Peter Mulrean told the assembly.
He was echoing the concerns of many of the 70 state representatives who spoke at Eritrea's so-called Universal Periodic Review, which all 193 UN countries must undergo every four years.
Chile and others urged the country to probe all reports of enforced disappearances, Denmark said it had done far too little to eliminate torture, while Estonia lamented the "disregard of freedom of expression."
Tesfamichael Gerahtu, Eritrea's ambassador to Britain, batted away the slew of charges, insisting that if anything was limiting human rights in Eritrea, it was the "unjustified sanctions" imposed on the country by the international community.
"To add insult to injury, Eritrea has been subjected to a litany of accusations of gross violations of human rights,... (that) are mainly motivated by sinister political agendas," he told the council.
Reporters Without Borders has ranked it the worst country in the world for press freedom, but Gerahtu insisted "There is no media censorship in Eritrea."
He said the 10 journalists and 11 opposition politicians arrested in a 2001 crackdown -- many of whom have since died in custody while others are still being held in secrete locations "were not detained because they expressed their ideas, (but because of) treason."
"I wish there had been a lie-detector device there. It was a mockery," exiled Eritrean journalist and writer Dessale Berekhet Abraham told AFP after listening to the session.
The 38-year-old who now lives in Norway said he knew Gerahtu well -- he was once his teacher at Eritrea's Revolution School -- and that he didn't take the "lies" personally.
"What else could he say if he wants to go back to Eritrea?" he asked.
Gerahtu meanwhile called on the UN diplomats to focus on Eritrea's progress in areas like reducing maternal and child mortality rates and in fighting HIV, as well as its 2007 law banning female genital mutilation.
And, he said, the country would hold its first free elections since it won independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and implement a 1997 constitution once the threats against its "national security" had dissipated.
"Eritrea's security situation does not and never has justified the denial of basic human rights to its people," the British representative said.
Only when the country has a democratically elected government and a constitution that ensures basic rights "will Eritreans stop fleeing," he added.
The UN refugee agency has registered more than 300,000 Eritreans refugees in neighbouring countries, with thousands fleeing every month, often under very dangerous conditions.
Eritreans, along with Somalis, accounted for most of the more than 300 migrants who perished in a boat tragedy off Italy's Lampedusa last October.