Eritrea collecting 'money for the dictator' from expats in Canada

In 2013, Canada expelled the top Eritrean diplomat in response to reports that the repressive African nation was levying a controversial tax on expats living in Canada. As Rick MacInnes-Rae reports, Eritrea is still collecting that levy, but through subtler means.

Edmonton woman refuses to pay controversial levy to her home country

Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, seen here in a photo from 2010, has been criticized for operating a repressive regime. Canadian government officials are concerned about a controversial 'tax' the African country is levying on Eritrean-Canadians. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

In a modest Edmonton apartment, Wegahta Tesfamariam draws her slim hand across her cheek and explains how her native country is trying to make her a victim of a tax scam Canada thought it shut down a year ago.

The 28-year-old is a permanent resident of Canada, not yet a citizen, and had to renew her Eritrean passport back in February.

She was in for a nasty surprise. As she told CBC News, Eritrea demanded a share of her annual income in a levy some liken to extortion. 

"There is a representative of the government in Edmonton. He asked me first I should pay two per cent. 

"I was like, surprised. I know that paying two per cent stopped in Canada last year. He said, 'If you need any service from Eritrean government, that's what you have to do.' I clearly told him I don't want to pay that."

And no wonder. Tesfamariam's bill would come to roughly $1,200, a lot of money for a newcomer to Canada just a few years into the workforce. Although, as a trained drafting technologist, she's in a better economic place than many Eritreans who work here at the bottom of the skills ladder. 

Other countries also tax their nationals living abroad, but Eritrea's has brought about a special degree of global condemnation because of the surreptitious way it goes about collecting the money, and because it is a repressive regime that has been under UN-imposed economic sanctions since 2009 for financing insurgent movements in the Horn of Africa. 

When Eritrean-born Wegahta Tesfamariam, who lives in Edmonton, recently tried to renew her Eritrean passport, her home country demanded a share of her annual income in a levy some liken to extortion. (CBC)

Canada subscribes to those UN sanctions, which gives them the force of law in this country, and Ottawa went a step further in May 2013, after CBC News revealed how Eritrea's Toronto-based consulate was orchestrating the so-called tax, sometimes adding in an additional defence fee controversially earmarked for the military. 

At the time, Canada expelled Eritrea's senior diplomat in this country — its consul general — for activities inconsistent with the role of a diplomat, Foreign Minister John Baird said in a carefully worded statement. 

It was one of the strictest diplomatic actions taken against Eritrea by any of the several countries where this controversial tax has been exposed, most recently in Australia. And it held out some hope the tax collections might stop. 

Yet 10 months later, when Tesfamariam got in touch with an official in the Toronto consulate, it was as if nothing Canada had done really mattered. 

As she later wrote to Citizenship and Immigration Canada: "He told [me] that I've to pay two per cent tax for the Eritrean government in Eritrea from the date I enter Canada to present, and he also asked me to mail my income tax papers from Revenue Canada to consular office in Toronto for him to calculate the amount I should be paying, and only then I can ask about [passport] renewal."

She was disgusted. "An embassy or a consulate should be representative of a people and a government," she said. 

"They should be here working for us, not for the government. They don't care what kind of service they give. They're just here to collect money for the dictator in Eritrea."

Not alone

Tesfamariam is not alone in objecting to being treated like a cash cow by her consulate.

An Eritrean activist who used to live in England and asked to remain anonymous invited CBC News to listen as he telephoned the number of Ahmed Iman, the senior Eritrean consulate official in Toronto. 

The man inquired about obtaining papers for a power of attorney. The Eritrean official immediately raised the matter of money. 

"Did you fulfill all the other said things?" the official asked, using a euphemism for payment.

"What shall I fulfill?" the man asked.

"This two from a hundred and things," replied Iman. 

"Two per cent?"

"Yes," Iman said.

"How can I calculate it?" asked the activist.

"We write to those in England, and they will tell us he is paying this and this," Iman said. 

The conversation then turned to the change in payment tactics.

"Everything is paid in Eritrea," said the official. "It is almost stopped here. It has been two years."

"How am I going to pay it in Eritrea?" asked the activist.

"It is not necessary for you to go, but through someone, or if there are people you know."

Not apologetic

Eritrea has never been apologetic about collecting the cash, believing it to be the right of a sovereign state. And it does have loyalists in Canada and around the world who publicly support the tax, and lobby against Canada's opposition to Eritreans here paying it. 

A map showing the country of Eritrea. (Google Maps)

As recently as June 3, the Eritrean website Madote reported that the Coalition of Eritrean-Canadian Communities and Organizations appeared before the parliamentary sub-committee on human rights in Ottawa to say: "We are being prevented from effectively exercising our dual citizenship rights, by paying the two per cent rehabilitation tax we voluntary remit to Eritrea each year.

"This tax is what allows us to contribute to the development of the country and allows us to benefit from access to important services and property rights in Eritrea."

When CBC News contacted Ahmed Iman, the senior consulate official at the Eritrean consulate in Toronto, he confirmed that Eritreans in Canada still have to pay the levy. The big difference is, they don't pay the consulate directly anymore. They pay in Eritrea.

"They have to pay the two per cent, too. But they don't pay it in here," Iman said. "We are not collecting the two per cent in Canada or at our office, our consulate general. But we give them [Eritreans in Canada] the information."

Asked how counselling people how to pay is any different from soliciting, he said "No, no. We not soliciting. We are giving information." 

Pay in cash

A year ago, before Canada cracked down on the practice, there were bureaucratic forms to fill out, and funds were wired from branches of the Toronto Dominion Bank in Canada to the Deutsche Zentral-Genossenschaftsbank of Frankfurt.

From there, documents showed the funds were sent to the Housing and Commerce Bank of Eritrea, majority owned by the ruling regime, the People's Front for Democracy and Justice.

But these days, no forms, and no banks. 

Eritreans living here are instructed to have the money hand-delivered to government offices in the capital city of Asmara. 

And because it's strapped for hard currency, the government wants it in cash, in Canadian dollars in Weghata Tesfamariam's case.

That requirement just makes things worse for someone like her. Even if she could go to Eritrea with the money, she wouldn't, describing it as a society that echoes apartheid-era South Africa. 

"Well, you're always hunted. You can't go town to town. You need a permit. I would not be able to go anywhere. Sometimes they suddenly come and ask for papers in the streets." 

Stateless limbo

Known in some quarters as the North Korea of Africa, Eritrea has a bad reputation with human rights organizations, which report that thousands of citizens have been imprisoned there without cause. 

Eritrea put Tesfamariam behind bars the first time she tried to flee the country, and pressed her into two years of unpaid national service. 

She doesn't want to risk that again, and doesn't know anyone there who could pay or take the money in on her behalf.

So with her passport about to expire, and no prospect of getting a new one, she's about to go into an almost stateless limbo.

In the view of Winnipeg human rights lawyer David Matas, who represents Eritrean activists in Canada, this new payment process is just as illegal as the old one.

"It's not papered. You don't get letters any more. You don't get instructions about what bank to send it to. It's done verbally now, but it's the same violation.

"I would say they are more guilty, because not only are they violating the law, they are also being dishonest about it, which they weren't before."

Withholding services

Tesfamariam's letter to Citizenship and Immigration Canada suggests the Canadian government has been made aware that the controversial tax is still being collected by a different means. But she found the CIC reply unhelpful.

"If ... a request for the renewal of your passport ... is refused, the letter of refusal should be forwarded to this office in order that your application for a Certificate of Identity can be reviewed," says the reply, dated May 6, 2014. 

In other words, go back to the Eritrean consulate that won't give you any information — let alone a passport — without a cash contribution, and ask it for a letter of refusal.

Tesfamariam is pretty sure she'll never get any letter, especially now that she has gone public with her case.

"I am talking today because I want to encourage Eritrean people to speak out," she says.

As a strategy, it is not without risk. The UN reports that families of activists overseas are often singled out for persecution back in Eritrea, which has informants in Canada.

"If I talk on TV [here], the Eritrean government won't know, but the agents will, and they will transfer my case. Some of them came as a refugee, but are still servants of the government.

"Eritrean people don't feel free, even though they're living in a free country" she says, alluding to the fact that those who fled repression in Eritrea are still living in its shadow here.


Rick MacInnes-Rae

World Affairs

Until his retirement in July 2014, Rick MacInnes-Rae was the World Affairs Correspondent for CBC News. A former Europe Correspondent and host of Dispatches, his 37-year- career with the CBC has taken him across much of the globe.