Press release

NEW REPORT: More Governments Reaching across Borders to Silence Dissent, Responses Lagging

There were at least 735 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression between 2014 and 2021, with four additional governments targeting dissidents abroad for the first time last year. 

More governments than ever are targeting dissidents beyond their own borders in order to stifle dissent, employing a range of repressive tactics that countries hosting exiles and diasporas are ill-equipped to prevent, according to a new report released today by Freedom House.

The report, Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression, documents the growing phenomenon of transnational repression, finding that there have been at least 735 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression since 2014—including assassinations, abductions, assaults, detentions, and unlawful deportations. It also assesses existing responses by host governments, international organizations, and technology companies, and offers guidance on what they can do to better protect vulnerable groups and individuals from this global threat to democracy and human rights.

“Autocrats have joined forces to brazenly target exiled dissidents and erode basic liberties around the world,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “This phenomenon shows that repression anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, and it puts human rights and democracy activists in serious peril. Defenders of democracy in government, civil society, and the private sector must use all tools available to turn back this rising tide of authoritarianism and create the conditions necessary for a safer, freer world.”

Governments have targeted individuals and communities in at least 84 countries, the report finds. Perpetrators of transnational repression in the United States include the governments of China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Rwanda, among others. Since September 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice has indicted 19 people for engaging in transnational repression in the country, with some accused of plotting abductions and assaults.

“Governments, companies, international organizations, and civil society all have a critical role to play in developing and strengthening strategies to address transnational repression,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, who leads Freedom House’s work on transnational repression and coauthored the report with research analyst Isabel Linzer. “There are many pragmatic steps that can be taken—from training law enforcement about the tactics authoritarians use to investing in strong digital security measures.

Additional report findings:

  • The use of transnational repression is spreading among governments. In 2021, four governments—those of Belarus, Nigeria, Comoros, and Algeria—targeted dissidents abroad for the first time in the eight-year period under study. This brings the number of governments that have physically harmed their nationals overseas since 2014 to 36. Belarus’s regime emerged as a leading perpetrator, accounting for 31 percent of the incidents recorded in 2021.
  • Authoritarian regimes are acting together to threaten, detain, and repatriate exiles. In 74 percent of transnational repression incidents in 2021, both the origin and the host countries were rated Not Free in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report. The governments of Russia and Turkey, already hostile toward domestic activists, worked with other authoritarian governments to repress foreign dissidents within their borders, endangering those, including Belarusians and Uyghurs, who had previously been able to find relative safety there.
  • No host country has solved the problem of transnational repression. Freedom House analyzed the policies of nine host countries—Canada, Germany, South Africa, Sweden, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States—to identify the best and worst practices in responding to transnational repression.
  • Digital tactics of transnational repression are widespread and diverse, and responses from host governments and technology companies are lagging. Exiled dissidents have attempted to protect themselves from surveillance and threats by adopting good digital hygiene practices, but they are outmatched by the governments targeting them.
  • At international organizations, nondemocratic governments are working together to degrade human rights and harass, intimidate, and threaten human rights defenders. Democratic governments that are committed to reversing the tide of transnational repression must find like-minded partners and form coalitions to defend international forums against authoritarian encroachment.

The report notes that high-profile attacks on dissidents—including Belarusian authorities’ forced landing of a commercial flight to arrest exiled journalist Raman Pratasevich and Beijing’s relentless campaign against Uyghurs living abroad—have begun to spur democratic policymakers into action. However, governments that host targeted groups and individuals need to improve their security, migration, and foreign policies to ensure that they offer appropriate protection and are capable of delivering accountability for perpetrators.

Key recommendations for host countries:

  • Make combating transnational repression a national security priority: Defining transnational repression in law is the first step to addressing it. Governments should recognize transnational repression as a threat to democratic institutions and the exercise of individual rights, and work with survivors and civil society experts to determine whether additional legal authorities are needed.
  • Raise awareness about the threat of transnational repression: Educating key personnel, namely those working in security, law enforcement, and migration agencies, on how to recognize and respond to transnational repression will protect potential victims and make democratic institutions more resistant to exploitation by foreign governments.
  • Welcome those seeking asylum: Many democracies have restrictive asylum policies that effectively trap vulnerable people in countries where they are more likely to be targets of transnational repression.
  • Strengthen accountability mechanisms for perpetrators: Policymakers have many available tools, including targeted sanctions, expulsions of diplomats, and the setting of conditions on foreign assistance. Whenever possible, democracies should apply these measures in a coordinated, multilateral manner for maximum impact.

Freedom House released the first comprehensive global survey of transnational repression, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, in 2021. That report is available here.

Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.

2022 TNR cover no text

Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression

More governments than ever are targeting dissidents beyond their own borders in order to stifle dissent, employing a range of repressive tactics that countries hosting exiles and diasporas are ill-equipped to prevent, according to a new report released today by Freedom House.