TORONTO — A year after Ottawa expelled the consul-general of Eritrea to put a stop to a money-making scheme his regime had set up in Canada, the dubious “diaspora tax” program appears to be continuing undeterred.
Under the system, the Eritrean consulate in Toronto tells expatriates they must hand 2% of their wages to the repressive African regime. The setup is part of a strategy that “routinely involves threats, harassment and intimidation,” according to a United Nations report.
Foreign Affairs officials have repeatedly warned Eritrea to end the practice. Last month, as a condition for maintaining a diplomatic post in Toronto, Eritrea agreed the consulate would not have any role in the solicitation and collection of taxes.
But several Eritreans who recently phoned the Toronto consulate said they were told they would have to pay the tax. They tape-recorded the conversations as evidence the consulate was still an active player in the taxation scheme.
“They told me that you have to pay 2%,” said Michael Teckle, 34, a Canadian citizen who fled Eritrea in 2002. He said consulate officials had solicited the tax from him on June 10, 11 and 16 — well after Eritrea told Ottawa it would not longer do so.
“They’re still doing it,” said another man who recorded his conversations with several consulate staff. Just days ago, he was told his family would be denied papers to leave Eritrea unless he paid the tax. He did not want his name used because he feared for his family.
The accounts suggest that despite Ottawa’s demands, consulate staff are still working closely with the regime and a network of agents to solicit the tax, calculate the sums and ensure the money is collected. Contacted for comment, the consulate employee who appears to be in charge of the tax program said she would call later but never did.
The scheme is the latest incarnation of the cash-strapped regime’s attempts to tap the roughly one million Eritrean expatriates — many of them refugees who fled abuses, only to find themselves pressured into paying off the regime responsible.
The United Nations has asked member nations to crack down on the tax system. While governments are allowed to tax their citizens living abroad, Canada argues that using a consulate for such a purpose is inconsistent with the Vienna Convention on consular relations. Further, extortion and collecting money for the Eritrean military are both illegal.
“We have made our position on this matter very clear to the Eritreans, and we expect them to abide by it,” said Adam Hodge, spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. “If the Eritrean consulate is indeed continuing to flout these obligations, there will be repercussions.”
‘Isn’t it an irony? … They want me to confess and say I’m sorry I left the post I was given by the Eritrean government’
About the size of Cuba, Eritrea gained independence in 1993 following a conflict with Ethiopia. President Isaias Afewerki has ruled ever since. Opposition parties are banned. The country consistently ranks among the world’s worst in terms of development, human rights and press freedoms.
A year after independence, the state enacted what it called a 2% development and rehabilitation tax, partly to support the families of “martyrs.” Outside Eritrea, embassies, consulates and agents of the president’s party enforce the tax system.
In Canada, Revenue Canada returns are used to calculate the amounts owing. According to an RCMP report cited by the UN, those who refuse to pay are denied services and face possible arrest when they return to Eritrea, while their friends and families still in Eritrea are threatened and harassed.
One of the men who recorded his calls with the Toronto consulate was told his wife would not get the papers she needed to leave the country until he had paid the tax. “If you don’t pay 2%, you can’t do anything. She can’t come,” the consulate employee said, according to a transcript of the phone call, which took place in April, although he has recorded similar calls in June.
The staff member told the man to visit the consulate and explained how it worked. “They will calculate it for you, how much you should pay,” the official told him. “Then somebody, either you or your wife in the country [Eritrea], will pay in Canadian cash the 2% amount. You send the money from here to her. After we calculate it here, we notify them the amount to be paid.”
A woman who phoned the consulate was told the tax was as an obligation like Canadian income taxes, and that even bank loans were taxable, according to a transcript of the call, which took place in April.
She was told to have someone carry Canadian cash to the Eritrean capital, Asmara. “Everybody is doing what I am telling you to do,” the employee said. “We are here to solicit and calculate the 2% tax. And inform accordingly.”
Following complaints about the system, Canada expelled the Eritrean consul-general last May. But Foreign Affairs continued to receive reports about the taxes, and late last month, Eritrea agreed to abide by three conditions stipulated by Ottawa.
The undertaking signed by Eritrea pledged that: the consulate would not be involved in any way in soliciting or collecting taxes; any taxation would be done directly by the Eritrean government without the use of agents in Canada; tax forms used in Canada would not contain any reference to financing the Eritrean military.
But a spokesman for the Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group of Manitoba said the recorded conversations, which it has compiled and translated, showed that since agreeing to the terms the consulate has continued as before.
“So far, there are other recordings done from Winnipeg, Fort McMurray and other cities. Expatriates have called and talked to different consulate employees and as far as the consulate office is concerned, it is just business as usual,” Berket Yohannes said.
Among those who taped their calls was Mr. Teckle, who left Eritrea after he was imprisoned for two months during a crackdown on students. He said consulate staff told him as recently as Monday he had to pay $6,000 in back taxes, otherwise they would not allow him to have his university transcript.
“Isn’t it an irony?” the Vancouver resident said in an interview Wednesday. The regime he escaped after it jailed him in 45C heat with little food now wanted money from him. He said the consulate eventually referred him to an agent in Vancouver to complete the required paperwork.
He said he was also told he would have to sign a statement admitting he had abandoned Eritrea without completing his compulsory national service. “They want me to confess and say I’m sorry I left the post I was given by the Eritrean governmen