E.g., 04/13/2024
E.g., 04/13/2024
A Tightening Grip Abroad: Authoritarian Regimes Target Their Emigrant and Diaspora Communities

A Tightening Grip Abroad: Authoritarian Regimes Target Their Emigrant and Diaspora Communities

Jamal Khashoggi

A poster remembering Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who was assassinated in October 2018 at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. (Photo: April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy)

The October 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had emigrated to the United States, inside Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate served as a brutal demonstration of how migrants and diaspora groups are within reach of the long arm of authoritarian states. Practices of transnational authoritarianism are widespread—from Central Asian republics’ targeting of political exiles to African states’ monitoring of diaspora activities. A few cases make international headlines: beyond the Khashoggi murder, the March 2018 poisoning attempt on former Russian military officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England was also widely reported. Most such cases, however, remain out of the public eye. For example, few Western media outlets reported Kuwait’s extradition of eight migrants who belong to the Muslim Brotherhood—an Islamist religious and political group—to Egypt in July 2019, where they await long prison sentences. Similarly, eyebrows were not raised in the West when Azerbaijani emigrant and former parliament member Huseyn Abdullayev (who led the “Let’s Not Keep Silent” opposition campaign while abroad) was arrested by Turkish authorities in April 2018 and later extradited to Azerbaijan—despite the fact that Germany had granted him political asylum a few years earlier.

Box 1. What Is Transnational Authoritarianism?

As defined here, transnational authoritarianism represents any effort to prevent acts of political dissent against an authoritarian state by targeting one or more existing or potential members of its emigrant or diaspora communities.

As nationals of authoritarian countries find it exceedingly difficult to “exit” the grip of their homelands, there is a need for a deeper understanding of the strategies these governments are using against their emigrant and diaspora communities, even those living in liberal democracies. This is particularly the case as transnational authoritarian practices are becoming increasingly common, from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia. This article aims to offer an understanding of the logic of transnational authoritarianism. It builds on a well-established concept in migration studies, James F. Hollifield’s “liberal paradox” framework, in order to shed light on the interplay between migrants, diasporas, and the repressive strategies developed by authoritarian countries of origin.

The “Illiberal Paradox” of Authoritarianism

Almost 20 years ago, Hollifield established that states’ policymaking on immigration faces a dilemma between markets and rights: in liberal democratic countries of destination, there is an inherent tension between the economic wish to encourage foreign labor and the security and political need to maintain immigration restrictions. Thus, Western Europe and North America remain trapped in a liberal paradox: “[I]n order to maintain a competitive advantage, governments must keep their economies and societies open to trade, investment, and migration. But unlike goods, capital, and services, the movement of people involves greater political risks.”

Earlier research by the author examined how this dilemma may also apply to authoritarian countries of migrant origin, where emigration also intensifies the tensions between markets and rights. On the one hand, autocratic governments seek to control their borders and restrict emigration because of domestic political and security reasons—citizens’ right to travel abroad comes into conflict with autocracies’ wish to maintain order and eliminate dissent. On the other hand, they wish to encourage emigration under an economic rationale—fully closed autocracies are economically unsustainable. How do authoritarian countries escape this “illiberal paradox”?

Controlling “Exit”

The traditional manner through which autocracies have addressed the illiberal paradox has been by securitizing emigration at the border. For most of the 20th century, a number of non-Western countries implemented emigration restrictions, to varying degrees. These took a number of forms, from the creation of “black lists” of political dissenters not permitted to travel abroad to the denaturalization of nationals who emigrated without authorization—measures prevalent in the Soviet Union and China. Mozambique introduced an “exit visa” policy that forced applicants to justify their case for wishing to leave. Often, such policies are tied to nationalist economic measures: the construction of the Berlin Wall, for instance, was both an attempt to cut off “brain drain” as well as a physical manifestation of the impossibility of East Germans’ exit to the West. In Syria, all engineering graduates are forbidden from emigrating until after they have been employed in the public sector for at least five years; similar measures existed in Haiti, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere.

Autocracies continue to seek control of citizens’ movement today, albeit to a lesser extent. North Korea considers unauthorized emigration a form of defection and has adopted a shoot-to-kill policy for citizens attempting to cross its borders. Those who survive an escape attempt face torture and forced labor in re-education camps. In Cuba, up until 2013, citizens faced a six-month prison sentence for even talking about unauthorized travel abroad. Following a failed attempted military coup in Turkey in July 2016, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian government cracked down on individuals suspected of being affiliated with the Gülen movement, including by revoking or confiscating passports. (While Erdoğan blamed the group for the insurrection, his long-time rival Fethullah Gülen denied any connection to the coup.) In post-“Arab Spring” Egypt, the military’s return to power in 2013 was followed by an extensive use of “terrorism lists” that prevented travel abroad, but also included political activists. Mozn Hassan, head of Nazra for Feminist Studies, and Azza Soliman, head of the Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, remain unable to leave Egypt.

Silencing “Voice”

Instead of securitizing emigration, most authoritarian governments have developed intricate mechanisms to target their emigrant and diaspora communities abroad. This allows them to escape from the illiberal paradox altogether: they can benefit economically from liberal migration policies, while addressing any political and security risks by monitoring and taking action against their populations abroad—in effect, silencing the voice of citizens abroad and their descendants. As transnational authoritarian practices become more frequent, they generally take one of three forms.

First, states may engage in transnational authoritarian practices themselves, either directly against citizens abroad or via cooperation with the countries of destination. The most extreme practices involve killing or kidnapping citizens who have sought safety on foreign soil. While the Khashoggi case may constitute the most gruesome recent example of Saudi violence, the kingdom has been implicated in a number of disappearances of political dissenters, including the 2003 kidnapping of Prince Sultan bin Turki in Geneva and the 2015 disappearance of Prince Turki bin Bandar al-Saud, who had applied for asylum in France. Russia also has a long history of violence against its citizens abroad, dating back to the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City, and has engaged in a range of more recent operations against émigrés in the United Kingdom.

Countries of origin may also engage in active monitoring of communities abroad, as in the cases of Tunisia or Eritrea. In Kazakhstan, Kazakh Societies and the umbrella organization KazAlliance encourage study abroad students to keep an eye on each other. Research by Eva Østergaard-Nielsen and Dana M. Moss identifies how Turkey, Syria, and Libya have engaged in intimidating overseas citizens and diaspora members via their consular and embassy services. Central Asian states have not hesitated to threaten residents who are relatives or friends of émigré activists. Iranian activists in Europe and North America have had their email and social media accounts hacked, while Iranian-based hackers have engaged in a range of cyberattacks against political opponents and critics in the diaspora. Finally, Israeli spy software is used by Saudi Arabia (which purchased the Pegasus spyware for $55 million in 2017), as well as by other Gulf monarchies to target diaspora dissidents, including Yahya Assiri, Ghanem al-Dosari and, reportedly, Khashoggi himself. 

Varying types of interstate cooperation also facilitate transnational authoritarianism, from regional migration regimes or sharing information to extradition treaties: Azerbaijan, in particular, has repeatedly employed extradition requests to secure the return of political exiles from Russia and elsewhere. Turkey also relies on similar processes, even attempting to implicate Western liberal states in this scheme: Erdoğan has repeatedly pressured the U.S. government for the extradition of Gülen, who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999. In the Middle East migration regime, the kafala system (in which a migrant worker is bound in a relationship with an employer for a specific period and unable to leave the country or take another job until released from his or her contract) and the lack of legal routes to citizenship ensure foreign laborers’ precarity, thereby preventing any attempt at political dissent—be it against migrant workers’ home or host countries. A long tradition of security cooperation across Arab states has also been important at silencing transnational activism.

A second type of transnational authoritarianism involves the use of multilateral organizations—be they regional or international—in tackling threats to autocratic governments. The Gulf Cooperation Council has been a key instrument for the diffusion of repressive measures, as oil-rich Arab monarchies have aimed to tackle the perceived transnational threat of the Muslim Brotherhood. Alexander Cooley, John Heathershaw, and Edward Lemon identified how the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) has been abused by autocrats to pursue their opponents abroad via the issuance of “red notices” for specific individuals. These warrants are shared with national police forces of all INTERPOL member states, which are expected to comply via arrests and extraditions. Tajikistan has sought to capture 2,528 exiled dissidents via the use of red notices, including Muhiddin Kabiri, a key political opposition figure. Post-coup attempt, Turkey has sought 60,000 red notices against citizens abroad—more than four times the total number of notices issued by INTERPOL in 2016.

Finally, beyond state policies and international organizations, nonstate actors may also become implicated in transnational authoritarianism, as Fiona Adamson has demonstrated in the Sri Lankan and Turkish cases. Both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTEE) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have engaged in attempts to dominate the diasporic space: the two groups’ members abroad have used threats, intimidation, and violence against rival migrants and diaspora organizations they see as competitors. For much of modern Tunisia’s history, nonstate organizations with a strong diasporic presence have also been tasked with intimidating or deterring rival groups—in fact, the Ben Ali regime stated that “your role is to preserve this outstanding image [of Tunisians abroad] and to fight with us against these intruders who are generally as useless at home as they are abroad.” Syria, Kazakhstan, and Eritrea are also adept at cultivating select diaspora groups, referring to them as loyal “patriots” tasked with preserving the interests of the nation abroad. Those considered to have engaged in suspect activities would find themselves ostracized or in trouble, either abroad or when they attempted to return. Over the last decade, many returnees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo face suspicion by police officers upon arrival and at times arbitrary arrest and detention, particularly with regard to “unpatriotic” activity while abroad.

Tackling the “Illiberal Paradox”

When is an authoritarian country more likely to restrict migration, and when is it more likely to securitize its diaspora? The author’s research on North African migration policies has identified how the decision to control exit or to silence voice abroad depends on the developmental value that an authoritarian state ascribes to emigration: beyond remittances, emigration contributes to skills development and provides a way to tackle overpopulation or  unemployment, at least in the short term. On the one hand, if a state does not expect material gains from its citizens’ crossborder mobility, it is more likely to securitize its emigration policy by introducing tighter border controls, implementing exit restrictions, and so on. On the other hand, if a state approaches its citizens’ crossborder mobility as a developmental opportunity, it is more likely to securitize its diaspora policy by focusing on monitoring communities abroad and repressing expatriates’ activism.

This is most evident in the cases of Algeria and Libya. The former realized the developmental value of emigration early on; in 1965, three years after Algerian independence, more than 500,000 Algerian nationals resided in France. This constituted a significant development opportunity, primarily regarding remittances. Unwilling to stem the outflow of its nationals, the Algerian state developed extensive mechanisms of surveillance and intimidation instead. The state introduced the Amicales, or “friendship societies” linked to the Algerian Ministry of Interior, tasked with maintaining a close watch on migrants’ activities. Violence against political dissenters living abroad was also common. Once increasing immigration restrictions across France and Western Europe diminished the developmental value of crossborder mobility, Algeria shifted towards controlling emigration and Amicales practices were abandoned. Not incidentally, all Algerian emigration to France was banned in September 1973.

The inverse process occurred in Libya’s management of the illiberal paradox. For the first two decades following independence in 1951, the state did not see any clear developmental benefit to crossborder mobility and chose to prioritize the control of borders and the provision of tight exit restrictions for Libyans. This changed once Muammar Gaddafi seized power in 1969. The regime encouraged emigration for skill-acquisition purposes, offering scholarships to thousands of students on an annual basis. Once Libya identified the developmental value of crossborder mobility, it proceeded to securitize its diaspora policymaking: the long arm of the Libyan state kept a close watch on the Libyan diaspora and did not hesitate to engage in frequent violent acts against political dissenters abroad.

The Rise of Transnational Authoritarianism

Recent research demonstrates how the relationship between migration and authoritarianism is becoming more complex. Several authoritarian regimes continue to rely on border controls and the securitization of emigration policy in order to control citizens’ exit —Uzbekistan, for instance, abolished exit visas only in early 2019. Other autocracies prioritize the silencing of citizens’ voice abroad, via the repression of emigrant and diaspora groups. In fact, some regimes—such as Ethiopia—appear to target both exit and voice. Beyond individual countries’ actions, interstate cooperation as well as the involvement of regional, international, and nonstate organizations demonstrate the versatility of authoritarianism today. Migrants and diasporas are faced with a web of transnational authoritarian practices that may render a complete “exit” almost impossible.

This article has suggested that the illiberal paradox, building on Hollifield’s existing framework, is able to shed light on authoritarian practices by demonstrating when and how transnational authoritarianism occurs. But questions remain, particularly regarding the role that liberal democratic countries of destination may have in containing these phenomena and combating the use of legitimate authorities, such as law enforcement red notices, for authoritarian control purposes. Bringing the literature on securitization into further conversation with work on migration and diasporas would allow a deeper understanding of these largely unexamined authoritarian practices.


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