Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: About the Project
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.
About the Project
Freedom House conducted an 18-month research project on transnational repression, or the targeting of individuals by their countries after they have gone abroad. Transnational repression can take a variety of forms: direct targeting such as kidnappings or assassinations, manipulation of host country institutions to detain or deport individuals abroad unlawfully, limiting the mobility of individuals abroad through actions like passport cancellations, and coercing individuals by threatening proxies such as families and loved ones. Through these actions, states seek to control “their” populations even after they have gone abroad. By studying this phenomenon at a global scale, Freedom House aims to explain the repercussions of transnational repression campaigns, and to help policymakers and civil society think about how they can respond to protect exiles and diasporas.
Freedom House Director of Research Strategy Nate Schenkkan led the project. Schenkkan and Research Analyst Isabel Linzer wrote the final report. Research Assistant Tessa Weal and interns Joy Hammer and Reema Saleh provided research assistance. Freedom House Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan Sarah Cook contributed research on China. Consultants Emile Dirks, Amy Lin, and Mustafa Aksu (Uyghur Human Rights Project) contributed research on China.
The project was made possible through the generous support of the Achelis & Bodman Foundation.
In addition to interviews and literature review, for this project Freedom House compiled and coded 608 cases in which states assassinated, rendered, assaulted, physically intimidated, or had detained individuals who had left those states and resided abroad. The data collection and coding methods can be viewed below. Data is available on request from Freedom House through the [email protected] email account. Please use the subject line “Transnational Repression Data Request.”
This project originated with a workshop on transnational repression organized by Edward Lemon at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in May 2018. At this workshop, we first conceived the idea of a global study of the scope and scale of transnational repression to expand upon the work done by John Heathershaw, Saipira Furstenberg, and Edward Lemon through their Central Asia Political Exiles (CAPE) database at the University of Exeter. The CAPE database continued to be a touchstone for the project throughout our work. Freedom House especially thanks John Heathershaw and Saipira Furstenberg for kindly hosting us for two days of workshops on the project at the University of Exeter in February 2020. These workshops were invaluable for developing our ideas and framework for discussing transnational repression in the final report.
In addition to the Exeter team, Freedom House also thanks the following academics with whom we engaged on the topic of transnational repression during the course of the project: Dana Moss, Gillian Kennedy, Fiona Adamson, Marcus Michaelsen, and Ahmed Erdi Öztürk. Freedom House also thanks Alexander Cooley for his intellectual support throughout the project.
Finally, Freedom House thanks the exiles from Syria, Iran, Rwanda, Russia, China, Turkey, Vietnam, Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia who made time to speak with us about their experiences of transnational repression. Your courage and resilience is an inspiration.
Freedom House coded direct, physical incidents of transnational repression according to the following definitions and methods.
Host country is the country where the incident took place.
Origin country is the country where the exile came from.
Incident type refers to the nature of the incident:
- Assassination/Assassination attempt is murder or attempted murder.
- Assault is a physical attack that is less likely to result in death.
- Detention is being held for more than 12 hours at the origin country government’s request.
- Rendition is forcible return to the origin country without legal process, or with only the barest fig leaf of a legal process. This includes cases of abductions, in which a person was taken by the origin country government with little or no involvement by the host country government. It also includes “deportations” in which the individual was held incommunicado, without access to a lawyer, or with such an expedited process that they did not have an opportunity to challenge the deportation, and thus were effectively rendered without protection.
- Unlawful deportation is forcible return with some violations of due process to an origin country where the person was liable to be subjected to persecution.
- Unexplained disappearance refers to incidents in which a person has disappeared and the origin country government is presumed to be responsible, but there is no confirmation as to where the person physically is.
Full date was recorded when available. Coders entered as much information as possible; only month and year were required for an incident’s inclusion in the final published data.
Name is the name of the targeted individual.
Interpol refers to whether an Interpol red notice or diffusion contributed to the incident (detention, rendition, or unlawful deportation) in question. The options for this coding entry are Confirmed and Unconfirmed. Sourcing must be clear and reliable to merit a Confirmed entry.
Chechnya nexus is used to identify cases in which Russia is the origin country, but the individual targeted is Chechen and/or the incident appears linked to the Chechen government.
Profile refers to the activities of the targeted exile. An exile may have more than one profile. The profile questions were considered on an inclusive basis: “Has X engaged in Y activity?,” meaning the activity does not need to be the person’s main or only occupation. The options for this coding entry are Confirmed and Unconfirmed; if there was not enough information to reach a final conclusion, it was marked Unconfirmed.
- Political activism is engaging in political activity relevant to the origin country, typically of an oppositional nature.
- HRD refers to human rights defense activity, meaning advocacy on behalf of the rights of a targeted individual or community.
- Journalism refers to public communications based on original information. In contexts where traditional media are state controlled, this may encompass social media posting based on original information for a substantial audience.
- Refugee is someone who has been granted asylum in the host country.
- Asylum seeker is someone who has applied for but not yet been granted asylum in the host country.
- Former insider is someone who was an elite in the origin country but fell out with authorities. This includes former officials, major financial or business figures, and high-ranking defectors.
- Mass incident refers to cases involving a group of three or more people who were targeted at the same time.
There are two designations for institutions:
- Media outlet is a media outlet.
- Organization is an institution like a human rights organization or political party office.
Accusations refers to the criminal offenses of which the targeted exile stands accused. Note that these accusations do not need to be made by a prosecutor or in court. Verbal accusations by government officials or government mouthpieces in the origin country are sufficient for coding. Note that the project is not passing judgment on whether these accusations are supported by evidence; in many cases, they are not.
- Antistate actions includes accusations of conspiring to overthrow the constitutional order or remove the existing regime through extralegal means.
- Terrorism and/or extremism refers to the alleged use of violence against civilians for political ends, and/or engagement in extremist ideological activity. Extremism is included to capture cases that may feature no accusations of violent activity.
- Corruption refers to alleged embezzlement, money laundering, or abuse of the public interest for private ends.
Gender may be male, female, or nonbinary.
Public case indicates whether the case is in the public domain, with Yes and No options. A case in the public domain will have at a minimum basic information, such as the victim’s name, the date (month), the host country, and the origin country. Cases marked No will not be shared outside Freedom House and were not included in the data published as part of the January 2021 special report.
Source is the source of information. This may be a UN communication, a court ruling, or another official document, if available. It may also be a news article or other reported source. Coders added more than one source if there was further information in other articles or documents.
Confidence in source is the coder’s confidence in the source on a 3–0 scale, with 3 as the highest confidence and 0 the lowest.
- 3 was used for high-quality sources such as court rulings, UN documents, and reputable international human rights groups (e.g., Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, Amnesty International, Central Asia Political Exiles)
- 2 was used for reputable media reports that make clear the source of their information.
- 1 was used for less-reputable media outlets or reports that left doubt as to the source of their information.
- 0 was used for social media or other kinds of low-quality reporting. Cases marked 0 were not included in data shared outside Freedom House or in the January 2021 special report.
Confidence in state-driven is the coder’s confidence that the origin country government was ultimately responsible for the incident. Confidence ranges from 3 to 0, with 3 as the highest confidence and 0 the lowest. There are three Yes/No criteria used to determine the score. Each criterion is worth one point.
- There is a known state-driven campaign against the individual or against a group with which the individual is associated.
- There is a clear political motivation for the state to engage in targeting of the individual.
- There is a clear mechanism for the state to engage in the specific targeting activity described in this incident.
Attachments is for PDFs, .doc files, and other items that may not be available as direct links.
Notes is a field used by coders to add robust contextual information that would aid follow-up or comparison. This might include information about the affiliations of the victim or his family, about the timeline of events, or about how the case evolved. Possible examples:
- “GROUP member with refugee status in X detained in Y on Z government request after traveling to CITY to visit his children.”
- “Refugee who fled X, first to Y and then to Z. Key witness in XX murder investigation. Describes Z police warning him against a particular area of CITY where there are X spies. Describes death threats delivered via his phone number.”
If there were any connections to other cases in the database, coders were instructed to note them. They did not need to mention all possible connections (e.g., not all Muslim Brotherhood entries needed to mention one another), but if there was a specific connection in terms of time, location, or individuals between cases, coders were asked to mention them.
Freedom House also tracked the following tactics for a related table. Tick boxes in the table indicate the presence or absence of a tactic attributable to the origin country government.
- Spyware is installation or attempted installation of malicious software that would monitor and exfiltrate communications or data found on a targeted user’s mobile phone or computer.
- Digital threats are coordinated, purposeful threats with a state-driven link, communicated through a public or private digital medium (including social media and messaging applications).
- Coercion by proxy involves threats or physical actions against a family member, loved one, or associate of the targeted exile that are meant to intimidate the exile.
- Mobility controls are efforts to restrict travel and mobility, including through cancellation of passports, revocation of citizenship, and denial of consular services.
- Interpol abuse is a red notice, diffusion request, or extradition request involving Interpol that results in substantial detention (12 hours or more) or unlawful deportation of the targeted exile. Freedom House does not count as Interpol abuse cases in which the origin country government attempted to abuse Interpol, but the notification was rejected or otherwise not acted upon.
Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: Understanding Transnational Repression
Click here to view the digital report experience.