Transnational Repression Threatens Freedom Worldwide

If exiled dissidents can be attacked even in the strongest democracies, none of us are safe.

In nondemocratic countries all over the globe, political leaders rule without the consent of their citizens. They preside over brittle regimes that harass, assault, detain, and surveil those whom they perceive as threatening their grip on power. The same impulse that drives authoritarians to crush opposition at home also motivates them to pursue critics abroad. This is the phenomenon known as transnational repression, in which governments reach across borders to silence dissent among exiles and diasporas. Transnational repression is a potent tool of global authoritarianism, and it poses a threat to freedom and democracy worldwide.

Today Freedom House published Defending Democracy in Exile, its second report on transnational repression. The first report, Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach, described the scale and scope of the problem by identifying the perpetrator states, their tactics, and their targets. The latest study examines how host governments, international organizations, and technology companies are responding to transnational repression, and offers recommendations on policies and practices that would better protect those who are seeking refuge from repressive regimes.

Over the course of nearly four years of research on this issue, Freedom House analysts have listened to the accounts of people who experience transnational repression firsthand. We are indebted to exiles and diaspora members from China, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, and Vietnam for sharing their stories with us.

While many victims of transnational repression are high-profile human rights defenders, activists, dissidents, and journalists, others have been subjected to extraterritorial violence for doing things that most people living in democracies would see as mundane: practicing their religion, attending a protest, joining a political party, or expressing their frustration with the government in private, online, or in print. These acts, however small and ordinary, challenge authoritarian rule and put exiles and diaspora members at risk of repression.

One of the aims of Freedom House’s second phase of research into transnational repression was to bring to light just how vulnerable people living in democratic countries continue to be. In 2021 alone, authoritarian governments and their agents harmed, or planned to harm, people living in comparatively democratic settings including Costa Rica, France, Kenya, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, Sweden, Ukraine, and the United States. Transnational repression can happen anywhere, affecting our neighbors, our classmates, reporters whose work we read, community organizers, and people running for political office.

Defending Democracy in Exile assesses the practices of nine countries where exiles and diaspora communities reside, and calls on these host governments to improve their security, migration, and foreign policies so as to better protect those targeted with transnational repression tactics including assassinations, assaults, renditions, unlawful deportations, and coercion by proxy.

The fact that transnational repression violates a host country’s sovereignty and threatens its residents and citizens is reason enough to act now. But we should understand that in defending those targeted by transnational repression, we are not just protecting an abstract idea of democracy or helping to shield the vulnerable among us from authoritarian violence. We are also protecting our own freedoms.

The global expansion of authoritarianism manifests itself in various ways, all of which entail a degradation of human rights. Autocrats use spyware and other digital tools to track dissidents and drown out critical voices online. They abuse international organizations for their own purposes, exploiting mechanisms that are meant to help fight international crime and terrorism in order to detain and return activists and journalists. They band together at international forums to shut out human rights defenders and representatives of religious and ethnic minorities. And as we have recently been reminded, they are even willing to launch wars against countries that resist their dominance and refuse to accommodate their vision of the world. These actions undermine the fundamental notion that political power should be constrained by respect for individual liberty.

In striving to exercise their human rights and working from exile to achieve democratic progress in their countries of origin, people most at risk of transnational repression are actively pushing back against global authoritarianism and defending the frontiers of freedom for all of us. We should help them.

Democracies can raise awareness among their law enforcement and security agencies about the physical threats faced by foreign activists, secure their immigration systems against manipulation by autocrats and recommit to upholding the right to seek asylum, apply targeted and multilateral sanctions—including visa bans and restrictions on arms sales—against perpetrator governments, regulate the export of surveillance technology, and form partnerships with like-minded countries to defend against authoritarian influence at international organizations. These measures will surely improve the basic security of exiles and diasporas, but they will also reinforce the norms that protect fundamental freedoms around the world.

More on Transnational Repression

2022 TNR cover no text

2022 Report: "Defending Democracy in Exile"

Freedom House’s latest report on transnational repression finds that policymakers, technology companies, and international organizations have been slow to recognize the practice as a threat to rights and freedoms – and to democracy itself.

Freedom House - Transnational Repression Origin Host Countries

About "Defending Democracy in Exile"

By studying transnational repression at a global scale, Freedom House aims to explain the repercussions of these campaigns, and to help policymakers and civil society think about how they can respond to protect exiles and diasporas.

Freedom House - Transnational Repression Grave Threats

Policy Recommendations

Learn more about what states, organizations and the private sector can do to increase accountability for perpetrators of transnational repression, and to provide protection for at-risk exiles and diasporas.