Dozens of governments around the world systemically employ violence against exiles and diasporas, reaching beyond national borders to silence dissent.

Human rights activists, dissidents, and their families face a worldwide pattern of violence and intimidation perpetrated by the authoritarian regimes they hoped to avoid by fleeing abroad, according to a new Freedom House report that details the immense scope of such “transnational repression.”

The Saudi authorities’ 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey is perhaps the most infamous recent case of transnational repression, but many other incidents have been reported, and still more have largely escaped media attention.

The key findings of the report – Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach – include the following:

  • There have been at least 608 cases of direct, physical transnational repression since 2014, including assassinations, abductions, assaults, detentions, and unlawful deportations.
  • At least 31 origin states on every inhabited continent have carried out such acts against victims in 79 host countries, for a total of 160 unique pairings between origin and host countries. The latter include the United States, the United Kingdom, and other established democracies.
  • An estimated 3.5 million people have been affected by either direct attacks or secondary tactics of intimidation and coercion that ripple through communities around the world.

“The scale and violence of these attacks underscore the danger that people face even after they flee repression,” said Freedom House president Michael J. Abramowitz. “Exiles around the world describe surveillance, assault, or even kidnapping and assassination as a constant threat that limits their ability to speak freely. Stopping transnational repression is vital to protecting democracy and rolling back authoritarian influence.”

Analysis of direct, physical cases of transnational repression can help researchers and advocates understand the nature and scale of the phenomenon. In addition to cataloguing these cases, Freedom House’s report explains the dynamics behind other forms of transnational repression: coercion by proxy, in which family members are targeted within the origin country to silence their relatives living abroad; mobility controls, such as the cancellation of passports; and digital threats like spyware and online smear campaigns. These tactics are extremely widespread, and while they may entail less physical danger than direct attacks, they can be very effective at compelling exiles to give up their activism.

The report found that most transnational repression involves some degree of cooperation between the origin state and the host state. This is obvious in detentions and deportations, in which the host country authorities are acting on official requests from the origin state. But it is also typically a factor in renditions, in which the victim is illegally transferred to the origin state with no semblance of due process.

“Preventing transnational repression will require examining the ways in which origin states manipulate migration and asylum systems to target those who flee,” said Nate Schenkkan, director for research strategy at Freedom House and coauthor of the report with research analyst Isabel Linzer. “As democracies’ migration and border systems focus more and more on national security, authoritarian states see an opportunity to exert control beyond their borders by exploiting accusations of terrorism in particular.” Of the physical cases Freedom House compiled, 58 percent involved accusations of terrorism.

The global analysis in Freedom House’s report is supplemented by detailed case studies on six leading states that practice transnational repression: China, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey. These countries stand out due to the extent and violence of their campaigns. Each case study explains the logic behind the regime’s transnational repression efforts, the tactics that it uses, and the experiences of exiles who are targeted.

  • China: The Chinese government’s campaign reaches the most people globally due to the broad range of groups under threat and the sheer number of countries where individuals face repression. Members of ethnic and religious minorities, former insiders of the Chinese Communist Party, human rights defenders, and increasingly, people from Hong Kong – all have been subjected to serious forms of transnational repression, including assassination attempts and renditions. Chinese authorities’ 2015 kidnapping of Gui Minhai, a Swedish citizen who was later forced to renounce his citizenship while in Chinese custody, is striking for its disregard for nationality, sovereignty, and human rights.
  • Rwanda: Transnational repression is a long-standing pillar of President Paul Kagame’s rule, with incidents dating back to the 1990s and including a string of suspected assassinations and renditions. Due to the government’s relentless desire to monopolize the country’s civic life, essentially all Rwandans abroad are at risk. In September, Rwandan officials kidnapped Paul Rusesabagina, the hero portrayed in the film Hotel Rwanda, from the United Arab Emirates.
  • Russia: The Russian regime’s effort has two main parts: a focus on former insiders whom the Kremlin views as threats, and an all-encompassing campaign against Chechens who challenge the rule of pro-Kremlin leader Ramzan Kadyrov. The Russian record is notable for its violence: 7 out of 26 assassination attempts Freedom House catalogued were tied to Russia. In just the last two years, three Chechen exiles have been murdered in Europe.
  • Saudi Arabia: The kingdom’s transnational repression extends far beyond the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The Saudi government has extensively used spyware, family intimidation, detentions, assaults, and renditions against exiles in the Middle East, North America, Europe, and Asia. Human rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul was kidnapped from the United Arab Emirates in 2018.
  • Iran: After a lull in the 2000s, the Iranian regime has in recent years resumed attempted assassinations and renditions of exiles, including in the Netherlands, Turkey, and Iraq. A particularly outrageous case was that of journalist Ruhollah Zam. After being abducted from Iraq, Zam was executed in Iran in December 2020.
  • Turkey: Since the coup attempt of July 2016, Turkey’s government has embarked on a global rendition campaign resulting in at least 58 abductions from 17 countries. These endeavors have involved corrupting local security services in Africa, Europe, and Asia and convincing them to facilitate the illegal transfer of individuals into Turkish custody. The campaign continues to this day: new renditions from Ukraine took place in January 2020, after the report had been completed.

This research on transnational repression forms part of Freedom House’s growing body of work on how authoritarian states exert influence beyond their borders. For more information on Freedom House’s research on authoritarian reach, click HERE.