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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
A Guardian reporter

Stop Eritrea’s ‘war-funding diaspora tax’, say MPs and lords

A poster in a window that reads 'I am an Eritrean … I am proud'.
A patriotic poster in Asmara, Eritrea. The government imposes a tax on Eritreans abroad that one critic called ‘extortion’. Photograph: AFP/Getty

A group of UK parliamentarians is calling for an urgent investigation into the collection of a “diaspora tax” by the Eritrean authorities, which they say could have helped fund war in neighbouring Ethiopia.

MPs and members of the House of Lords want the government to launch a “full, formal, and fully funded” public inquiry into the collection of the 2% tax in the UK, and take “robust action to stop the practice”.

They also called on the Metropolitan police and its parliamentary and diplomatic protection department to investigate both recent and past evidence it has received about the tax, publish its findings and “pursue those accused of crimes, including past consular staff”.

The tax, levied on Eritreans living abroad to fund, according to the Eritrean government, development projects, is collected by Eritrea’s diplomatic and consular offices around the world. Failure to pay it in effect bars people from receiving consular help or assistance from the state, for example, if they want to get a passport or sell property in Eritrea.

In 2011, a UN security council resolution, supported by the UK, condemned the tax and accused Eritrea of using the money to destabilise the Horn of Africa. It is unclear how much money Eritrea makes from the tax, or how it is spent because the country does not publish its financial records.

But a report released by the parliamentary group this week said: “It is likely that funds gathered using the tax are spent on war efforts, in ways which mirror the circumstances that gave rise to the UN security council’s criticism of the tax’s collection in 2011.”

Eritrean troops have been fighting alongside the Ethiopian government in its war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which began in 2020. A permanent cessation of hostilities was agreed on Wednesday.

The crossbench peer Lord Alton, co-chair of the group, said: “Eritrea is cash-poor, but despite this is calling up its citizens to fight in its neighbour’s costly, pitiless, brutal and cruel war, which has been marked by mass atrocity crimes and accompanied by a scale of human suffering that is scarcely conceivable.

“Stopping the collection of this 2% diaspora tax would have a direct impact on Eritrea’s ability to wage war with neighbours – tragically all too evident in the horrific carnage of Tigray – and hamper its efforts to destabilise the Horn of Africa region,” Alton said.

“We will now be pushing our own government, as well as allies, to conduct their own investigations, and to take action to halt the collection of this tax.”

The British government has previously raised concerns about the tax with the Eritrean authorities.

In testimonies gathered by the parliamentary group, Eritreans said the embassy in London had stopped collecting the money directly, but now required payment to be made in Asmara or through other means.

Fathi Osman , a former Eritrean official now living in France, said he believed the tax was being spent on the war in Tigray. “[The government] doesn’t have other revenues, what can they do? I remember with the war with Ethiopia in 1998, they issued bonds and let Eritreans living abroad buy them so they could fund the war.”

Osman, who was the deputy ambassador in Saudi Arabia until 2012, said the Saudi embassy received about 3m Saudi riyals (£715,000) every three months from Eritreans living in the country. “That’s about $4m every year just from the huge Eritrean diaspora who are living in Saudi,” he said.

One Eritrean woman, who has been living in the UK since 1993, stopped paying the tax in 2002, “when I saw that it was just extortion and there was no accountability, and we don’t know where the money goes or [what it is] used for”.

As a result, the woman, who did not want to be named, said: “I can’t go back home or sell my property there. Even if you are dead, and you want to be buried in your home country, you must pay and have a clearance to allow the body to be buried.”

The Eritrean embassy in London was approached for comment.

In a response to a parliamentary question about Eritrean funds, the government urged “anyone with evidence that coercion has been used in pursuit of payment of the Eritrean diaspora tax to report this to the police”.

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