Monday, March 17, 2014

Eritreans in Australia "forced" to pay illegal tax | SBS News

Members of Australia's Eritrean community say they're being forced to pay the Eritrean government an income tax banned by the United Nations.

Santilla Chingaipe


World News Radio
(Transcript from World News Radio)
The UN says the tax is being used to destabilise the Horn of Africa by funding militant groups, including Al Shabaab.
Collection of the two per cent income tax would be in defiance of an Australian government order that it stop.
(Click on audio tab to listen to this item)
According to the last Census, there are close to three thousand people living in Australia from Eritrea.
The north-east African country's only diplomatic presence in Australia is a consulate in Melbourne.
It's through this consulate that members of the Eritrean community say they're being forced to pay a two per cent tax on their incomes, even if they're only Centrelink benefits.
David, who wishes not to be identified, migrated to Australia in 2009.
He has shown SBS receipts from the consulate indicating he's been paying the tax for years.
"When I came here, I wanted to renew my passport because I was still a skilled migrant, so I went there and my passport had expired and I said I need to extend it because I wanted to travel, so I went to the Consulate and they asked me to pay 2 per cent."
David says the consulate refuses to deal with any Eritrean-born person who doesn't provide proof of their income level, and then begins paying the tax.
"They get you once you come to the Consulate, and you are requesting for a service, and other times they'll ask you if you've previously paid the 2 percent tax, and you need to provide them with previous payment. They get to know you or catch you when you go to the consulate."
And David says that if he didn't pay the tax, he wouldn't be able to visit close family members in Eritrea.
"The problem is if I don't pay two per cent, I'm not going to get any services either from the Consulate or the government."
Eritrea has been governed since independence in 1993 by the People's Front for Democracy and Justice.
The government has been widely condemned by human rights groups, and tens-of-thousands of Eritrean citizens have fled in recent years as refugees.
Munir Abdulhai, who also lives in Melbourne, describes himself as the Australian spokesman for the opposition group, the Eritrean National Council for Democratic Change.
He also claims if the two per cent tax is not paid through the consulate, there are serious repercussions for those back home.
"They hold ransom or they hold someone back home, anybody who has a son, child or father, they are imprisoned. I know some people who have their relatives imprisoned to just these people to keep them who are outside quiet. Here in Australia."
And Mr Abdulhai claims, the consulate even taxes people on Centrelink benefits.
"You tell them I'm a pensioner, I have known some people who have paid this fund, 2 per cent, they tell them, even if you don't have nothing, they tell them all right, pay this (amount). If they say my income is so low, or this or that, they will tell them as well, have you paid for the function that we had here, the festival we had here, indirectly they tell them to pay it. So in any case, whether it's donated, it's imposed anyway."
The United Nations Security Council banned the so-called diaspora tax collected by Eritrean authorities in a resolution passed in 2011.
The Security Council accused the Eritrean government of undermining peace and reconciliation in the Horn of Africa, by providing support to armed groups such as al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate.
The Council called on all UN members, including Australia, to hold accountable, consistent with international law, any individuals acting on behalf of the Eritrean government who collect the diaspora tax.
Yassin Omer Mahmoud is the head of Consular Affairs at the Eritrean Consulate in Melbourne - that is, Eritrea's top diplomat in Australia.
He freely admits that the two per cent payment is sought from Eritreans in Australia.
"We don't call it a tax, we call it recovery. Because Eritrea actually passed through a lot of issues, problems and war and when we come to actually starting or building the country, there's actually like below zero (from scratch), and in order to get that independence, there's a lot of sacrifice. And what's happening is that this (tax) is a kind of gratitude towards the country, everyone will to contribute towards building the country.
And Mr Mahmoud, who disputes the UN allegations against the Eritrean government, denies that the payments are compulsory.
"Actually this is not a forced payment, it is voluntary, whenever they want any services maybe in Eritrea, that's the time they will start paying and there is no force for that. It's voluntary."
In a statement to SBS, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says the Australian Government condemns any efforts by Eritrea to impose a tax on the Eritrean diaspora, whether in Australia or internationally.
She says Australia formally instructed the Eritrean Consulate to suspend collection of any such tax in June 2011.
But Yassin Omer Mahmoud says he hasn't seen any such communication from the Australian government.
"Until it is officially (told) to us, I'm not going to comment on that. Until it is official told about this issue that you are raising, then we will be commenting on that."
In May last year, Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird expelled Eritrea's consul in Toronto, after he was accused of ignoring repeated warnings to stop imposing the diaspora tax.
"I think declaring the Consul General persona non grata is a significant diplomatic step which underlines our significant concerns with the activities that were inconsistent with his diplomatic role."
David, and other members of the Eritrean community in Australia, say they'd like to see similar action by Julie Bishop.
Meanwhile, he's asked for his identity to be hidden because of the dangers of speaking out about the Eritrean government - and the tax it imposes - even in Australia.
"It's not safe for me right now because I am exposing the government, and the truth of what is happening in Australia. If my face is identified, they can easily persecute my family. They can persecute my mum and my brothers which is not safe."
Julie Bishop's statement says the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has asked federal, state and territory law enforcement authorities to inform it of any evidence that attempts have been made to collect the diaspora tax in Australia.
She says the Department is not aware of this practice currently occurring.

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