At Home and Abroad: Coercion-by-Proxy as a Tool of Transnational Repression
Exile often means leaving loved ones and colleagues behind, sometimes at the mercy of governments who target them to gain leverage.
Transnational authoritarianism is characterized by the breaking down of the boundaries between state-led domestic forms of control over citizens living “at home” and long-distance forms of repression targeting those who reside “abroad.” When an authoritarian state employs strategies of transnational repression, it seeks to coerce those living outside its legal borders. Victims of transnational repression can include not only prominent individuals, such as political exiles, journalists, and émigrés, but also entire groups, such as students, labor migrants, or refugees. State-led forms of transnational repression can also extend to a country’s diaspora, including noncitizens with interests in or connections to the homeland.
Strategies of transnational repression can target individuals abroad via harassment, surveillance, enactment of mobility restrictions, or even more serious instances of kidnapping, physical attack, or assassination. However, authoritarian states may encounter obstacles in their ability to engage in direct forms of transnational repression: targeting individuals abroad can have high costs when it violates the sovereignty of powerful states. It may also raise diplomatic concerns or draw unwanted public attention to countries’ human rights practices, as well as generate undesired media coverage.
Alternatively, autocracies use strategies that involve long-distance coercion-by-proxy. In such cases, governments operate within their territory and jurisdiction to target the family members, associates, or acquaintances of individuals living abroad. In effect, states use domestic forms of repression as a means of punishing, threatening, or controlling those who reside overseas. This can be considered a “low cost” form of transnational repression in that it neither violates the sovereignty of other states nor is it likely to garner significant levels of diplomatic or media attention.
The harassment of dissidents’ family members or acquaintances has long been used as a method of political control in authoritarian states: the personal networks of dissidents are often investigated or targeted by autocracies’ security agencies seeking to identify, punish, or silence political activists. When the Soviet Union stripped dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn of his citizenship, the daily Izvestiia warned that his family members were next.1 Similarly, the Marcos regime in the Philippines harassed the family and relatives of Filipinos in the United States during the 1970s as a means of exercising leverage over them.2
- 1. Hedrick Smith, “Solzhenitsyn Exiled to West Germany and Stripped of his Soviet Citizenship,” The New York Times, February 14, 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/02/14/archives/solzhenitsyn-exiled-to-west….
- 2. Jack I. Garvey, “Repression of the Political Emigre—The Underground to International Law: A Proposal for Remedy,” Yale Law Journal 90, no. 1 (1980): 79, fn5.
An increase in states’ abilities to engage in long-distance surveillance and harassment, coupled with a global resurgence of illiberal politics, suggests the need for greater attention to the use of coercion-by-proxy as a strategy of transnational repression.
What is new—and of particular interest for understanding the dynamics of transnational authoritarianism—is the extent to which these strategies have “gone global.” For one, international migration has facilitated citizens’ mobility into and out of autocratic states.1 At the same time, new information and communications technologies (ICTs) have led to the globalization of many aspects of domestic politics, and the rise of diaspora politics.2 Diasporic activism operates largely outside the jurisdiction of the state of origin and has therefore often been assumed to be a space of opportunity for political opposition movements and groups, where they can operate without interference from homeland state authorities.3
Yet, the transnationalization of politics has been accompanied by the transnationalization of family ties, social relations, and social networks, which perversely has provided an additional source of leverage for states to engage in transnational repression. New forms of digital surveillance—such as monitoring social media accounts, private communications, and text messages—mean that authoritarian states can quickly identify the ties between activists abroad and family members and acquaintances “back home.” Thus, whereas actors in the diaspora may be outside the direct reach of repressive states, their friends and relatives can still become targets of state coercion-by-proxy.4
In order to understand this dimension of transnational repression, we first examine the ways in which states employ coercion-by-proxy strategies—as instruments of punishment, deterrence, compellence, and control. We then discuss the global scope of such strategies and their range of targets, before reflecting on possible means of addressing this challenge.
- 1. Gerasimos Tsourapas, “A Tightening Grip Abroad: Authoritarian Regimes Target Their Emigrant and Diaspora Communities,” Migration Policy Institute, August 22, 2019, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/authoritarian-regimes-target-th….
- 2. Fiona B. Adamson, “The Growing Importance of Diaspora Politics,” Current History 115, no. 784 (November 2016): 291–97.
- 3. See, for example, Alexander Betts and Will Jones, Mobilising the Diaspora: How Refugees Challenge Authoritarianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
- 4. Dana M. Moss, “The Ties That Bind: Internet Communication Technologies, Networked Authoritarianism, and ‘Voice’ in the Syrian Diaspora,” Globalizations 15, no. 2 (2018): 265–82.
Coercion-by-proxy can also be used to target and control entire groups abroad, such as students, labor migrants, and ordinary members of the diaspora.
Coercion-by-Proxy as a Strategy of Transnational Repression
Coercion-by-proxy constitutes the actual or threatened use of physical or other sanctions against an individual within the territorial jurisdiction of a state, for the purpose of repressing a target individual residing outside its territorial jurisdiction. It may involve visible, high-intensity tactics based on the use of violence, such as imprisonment, physical attacks, disappearances, or even assassination; it may also include less visible, low-intensity tactics, such as threats, surveillance, or restrictions on an individual’s freedoms.
Coercion-by-proxy is used by a variety of authoritarian states and operates according to a range of logics, including punishment, deterrence, compellence, and control.1 Punishment involves retribution for acts committed by targets abroad; deterrence involves using threats of punishment to prevent actions by targets abroad, thus increasing their perceived costs; compellence involves using threats of punishment in order to coerce targets abroad into specific behaviors or actions. Taken together, these three logics of coercion-by-proxy extend autocracies’ control over those abroad by normalizing group-level self-censorship and self-policing across the diaspora.
Dana Moss has defined “proxy punishment” as “the harassment, physical conﬁnement, and/or bodily harm of relatives in the home-country as a means of information gathering and retribution against dissidents abroad.”2 Punishment involves the targeting of families or relatives in the homeland in retaliation for specific actions taken by dissidents, opposition members, journalists, or other key figures in the diaspora. In the case of Egyptian activist Wael Ghonim, for instance, the arrest of his brother came a few days after Wael Ghonim rejected a request by the Egyptian embassy in Washington, DC, to “go silent or work with them.”3 His is not an isolated case, however. Between 2016 and 2019, twenty-nine Egyptian journalists and media workers, as well as political and human rights activists living abroad, had family members in Egypt targeted by the regime.4 Elsewhere in the Middle East, when Mohammed al-Fazari, an Omani human rights defender and blogger, defied a travel ban and sought asylum in the United Kingdom, authorities targeted his family: in 2015, his brother was detained for three weeks without charge while, in 2017, al-Fazari’s family was barred from traveling abroad.5
An additional variant of coercion-by-proxy is the use of threats to domestic family or acquaintances as a means of either deterring or compelling actions in the diaspora. In the first case, autocracies issue warnings and engage in acts of intimidation as a preventive form of coercion-by-proxy. Deterrence is used to alter the cost-benefit calculations of those living abroad by creating fear and anxiety around the well-being of their family members in the country of origin. For example, North Korea seeks to prevent the defection of workers abroad by effectively holding their families hostage. Some three thousand North Koreans work in Qatar where “almost all of the wages of the workers sent abroad are remitted back to Kim Jong-un’s regime.”6 This “global moneymaking scheme” for the North Korean regime “takes in anywhere from $200 million to $2 billion a year.”7 The majority of the workers “are married men with at least one child, even better, two children. Of course, the families are kept at home as hostages, as insurance to make sure that these workers do not defect.” Similarly, the Iranian women’s rights activist Mansoureh Shojaee has suggested that people are “held hostage in Iran” in order to curtail the activities of political activists abroad and to prevent them from advocating against human rights violations.8
Compellence involves the opposite dynamics, namely, the use of threats against family members and colleagues in order to force an individual to undertake particular actions, including halting particular activities. Chinese students in the United States have reported that their family members have been threatened with the loss of their jobs if the students do not cease political activism.9 One Uyghur factory worker in the Netherlands stated that Chinese policemen obtained his phone number from his relatives in Xinjiang in November 2014, and forced his brother to call him: then, “they took over the phone call and told me that I had to provide information on other Uyghurs in the Netherlands. Otherwise they would take my brother.”10 This extends beyond providing information on other individuals: “The Chinese spy services are literally threatening Chinese families,” U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner has stated. Echoing FBI Director Christopher Wray’s claim that Chinese students are compelled to steal research and technological advancements from the United States, Senator Warner further asserted, “If your son or daughter does not come back [from the U.S.] and come back with intellectual property, you the family will be put in jeopardy.”11
The use of long-distance coercion-by-proxy instruments against individuals for the purposes of punishment, deterrence, and compellence can all feed into the creation of a larger climate of fear and control in the diaspora, affecting not just individuals but entire populations. Together with other forms of transnational repression, the use or threat of punishment-by-proxy can lead to high levels of self-censorship and self-policing within the diaspora. Bui Thanh Hieu, a Vietnamese blogger living in exile in Germany, decided to quit blogging due to the Vietnamese authorities’ harassment of relatives back home, including his 86-year-old mother, who is currently hospitalized.12 In the case of Syria, those who have fled the Assad regime highlight a totalitarian-style state repression that has produced “a disposition of silence . . . carried beyond the homeland.”13
- 1. Strategies of transnational repression have also been taken up by some nonstate actors. See Fiona B. Adamson, “Non-State Authoritarianism and Diaspora Politics,” Global Networks 20, no. 1: 150–69.
- 2. Dana M. Moss, “Transnational Repression, Diaspora Mobilization, and the Case of The Arab Spring,” Social Problems 63, no. 4 (September 2016): 480–98. See also Moss’s contribution to this collection.
- 3. “Egypt Activist Wael Ghonim’s Brother Ordered to Remain in Custody,” Al Jazeera, September 22, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/egypt-activist-wael-ghonim-broth….
- 4. “Egypt: Families of Dissidents Targeted,” Human Rights Watch, November 19, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/11/19/egypt-families-dissidents-targeted.
- 5. “Oman: Activist’s Family Barred from Traveling Abroad,” Human Rights Watch, February 14, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/14/oman-activists-family-barred-travel….
- 6. Pete Pattisson, “North Koreans Working as ‘State-Sponsored Slaves’ in Qatar,” The Guardian, November 7, 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/nov/07/north-korean….
- 7. Jason Aldag, “How North Korea Takes a Cut from Its Workers Abroad,” The Washington Post, November 1, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/how-north-korea-takes….
- 8. Marcus Michaelsen, “Exit and Voice in a Digital Age: Iran’s Exiled Activists and the Authoritarian State,” Globalizations 15, no. 2 (2018): 248–64.
- 9. Nicholas Eftimiades, Chinese Intelligence Operations: Espionage Damage Assessment Branch, US Defence Intelligence Agency (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2017).
- 10. “Nowhere Feels Safe,” Amnesty International, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2020/02/china-uyghurs-abroad….
- 11. Jeff Seldin, “Chinese College Students Being Forced to Spy on US,” Voice of America, June 18, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/student-union/chinese-college-students-being-fo….
- 12. “Dissident Exile Stops Blogging Because Family in Vietnam Is Being Hounded,” Reporters Without Borders, March 2, 2020, https://rsf.org/en/news/dissident-exile-stops-blogging-because-family-v….
- 13. Wendy Pearlman, We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (New York: Custom House, 2017), 25.
The Global Scope of Coercion-by-Proxy
State-led coercion-by-proxy strategies that are designed to punish, deter, compel, and, ultimately, control individuals or populations abroad are widespread and characterized by their global scope. An increase in states’ abilities to engage in long-distance surveillance and harassment, coupled with a global resurgence of illiberal politics, suggests the need for greater attention to the use of coercion-by-proxy as a strategy of transnational repression.
One group of actors that is frequently targeted includes political exiles and regime dissenters. For example, when Uyghur political activist Rushan Abbas spoke at a think tank in Washington, DC, about the repression faced by Uyghur Muslims in China, her sister and aunt in Xinjiang disappeared within a week. Abbas is one of many Uyghur Americans who have had family members in China detained or harassed as part of what appears to be a coordinated strategy to silence political activists in the Uyghur diaspora.1 Rwandan political exiles have expressed concern about their private communications with family members and acquaintances being intercepted as part of state strategies of harassment and leading to subsequent targeting of individuals back home.2 Relatives of Emirati political dissidents have faced restrictions on their access to any employment opportunities or higher education: “Whenever the family tried to dig deeper to understand why the government was denying access to a service or holding an application pending indefinitely,” one Emirati dissident abroad reported, “they would be told, verbally only, that the obstruction was happening at the state security level.”3 Kurdish political activists in Europe have reported cases in which their relatives have been threatened or attacked, including at least one case of the murder of elderly parents by suspected government-linked death squads.4
At the same time, whistleblowers and journalists writing on homeland politics can also become targets of state-led coercion-by-proxy strategies. The exiled Turkish journalist Can Dündar claimed that his wife in Turkey was being treated “like a hostage” by the Turkish state, unable to leave Turkey and fearing for her life,5 a story that matches reports by a number of journalists whose relatives were detained or harassed after they fled Turkey.6 In the case of Europe-based Tajik journalist Humayra Bakhtiyar, police called her father to convince his daughter to return to Tajikistan or face losing his job as a schoolteacher, as he had “no moral right to teach children if he was unable to raise his own daughter properly.”7 The Iranian regime targeted the father of journalist Masih Alinejad, who campaigns for women’s rights online. As she reported, “nine times they took him and told him that his daughter is morally corrupt, that she is against Islam, she works with Israel against our country. My father doesn’t talk to me anymore.”8 The exiled Egyptian whistleblower Mohamed Ali has produced videos on alleged government corruption, which have stirred numerous protests in Egypt. In response to his first video, the regime raided his company’s offices in Cairo, arresting at least seven of his employees; following his second video, two of his cousins living in Alexandria were reported missing. Ali’s father subsequently appeared on a progovernment television show denouncing his son.9
Coercion-by-proxy can also be used to target and control entire groups abroad, such as students, labor migrants, and ordinary members of the diaspora. A Chinese student in Vancouver argued, “We self-police ourselves. . . . Everybody is scared. Just this fear, I think creating the fear, it actually works.”10 In Turkish communities in Europe, ordinary members of the diaspora often live in fear of being spied on by their compatriots, who have been encouraged to do so by the Turkish regime. This creates particular challenges for dual nationals. In the Netherlands, there have been several cases of dual Turkish-Dutch nationals traveling to Turkey and having their travel documents confiscated. In one case, a recently divorced woman had traveled to Turkey with her son and had her travel documents canceled after suspecting that her ex-husband had reported her to a tip-off hotline as revenge. One Dutch official claimed, “We’re doing everything we can. . . . It’s difficult, because Turkey regards them as Turkish citizens who have to abide by Turkish law.”11
- 1. Edward Wong, “Uighur Americans Speak Against China’s Internment Camps. Their Relatives Disappear,” The New York Times, October 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/18/world/asia/uighur-muslims-china-deta….
- 2. Mehul Srivastava and Tom Wilson, “Inside the WhatsApp Hack: How an Israeli Technology was Used to Spy,” Financial Times, October 30, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/d9127eae-f99d-11e9-98fd-4d6c20050229.
- 3. “UAE: Unrelenting Harassment of Dissidents’ Families—Travel Bans, Active Surveillance, Restrictions on Basic Rights,” Human Rights Watch, December 22, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/12/22/uae-unrelenting-harassment-dissiden….
- 4. Marlies Casier, “Neglected Middle Men? Gatekeepers in Homeland Politics. Case: Flemish Nationalists’ Receptivity to the Plight of Turkey’s Kurds,” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 17, no. 4 (2011): 501–21.
- 5. Kevin Lynch, “Turkish Journalist Can Dundar: Erdogan’s Opponents ‘at risk everywhere in the world,’” Deutsche Welle, October 10, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/turkish-journalist-can-dundar-erdogans-opponents-….
- 6. Denitsa Tsekova, “Turkey Reporter Stayed One Step Ahead of Crackdown,” Index on Censorship, February 12, 2018, https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2018/02/turkey-reporter-stayed-one-st….
- 7. “Tajikistan: Events of 2019,” Human Rights Watch, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/tajikistan#a0011f.
- 8. Michaelsen, “Exit and Voice in a Digital Age: Iran’s Exiled Activists and the Authoritarian State,” 248–64.
- 9. Patrick Wintour, “Mohamed Ali: Egyptian Exile Who Sparked Protests in Shock at Mass Arrests,” The Guardian, October 23, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/oct/23/mohamed-ali-egyptian-exil….
- 10. “China’s Global Threat to Human Rights,” Human Rights Watch, January 3, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/china-global-threat-to-human-righ….
- 11. “Mother and Son on Family Visit to Turkey Barred from Returning to Netherlands,” Dutch News, August 28, 2017, https://www.dutchnews.nl/news/2017/08/mother-and-son-on-family-visit-to….
Conclusions and Policy Implications
As autocracies develop new means of exercising power over populations abroad, their use of transnational strategies of coercion-by-proxy poses a number of challenges for policymakers in democratic states, human rights actors, and international legal understandings of refuge, asylum, and protection. Existing international protection regimes operate according to state-centric assumptions, in which state sovereignty is identified with territoriality and national borders are assumed to demarcate legal jurisdictions in ways that offer refuge and asylum to persecuted individuals fleeing authoritarian states. Yet, the examples provided in this piece show that the crossing of national borders does not mean that individual dissidents and exiles—or entire groups living outside a state’s territorial boundaries, such as international students, labor migrants, or ordinary diaspora members—are necessarily free from the influence of state actors in their homeland.
Some human rights reports, including that published by the U.S. Department of State, have recently added categories that directly address other examples of state-led forms of transnational repression.1 But the use of coercion-by-proxy—in which the immediate victims of state coercion are domestic family members and acquaintances, but the ultimate targets of the actions are those who live abroad—presents a more complicated blurring of how authoritarian practices “at home” relate to diaspora politics “abroad.” In a highly interconnected world, it may be necessary for human rights organizations and others to radically rethink traditional reporting mechanisms and legal remedies that focus primarily on states. One alternative to the country-based report format would be for human rights actors to think more in terms of “authoritarian practices” that transcend state borders.2 A practice-based approach to human rights violations can shed greater light on the spatial and legal complexities that characterize contemporary human rights abuses. This includes the ways in which liberal and illiberal states, rather than operating in wholly separate spheres, are increasingly entangled.3
- 1. “2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” (Appendix A), U.S. Department of State, March 11, 2020, https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-country-reports-on-human-rights-prac….
- 2. Marlies Glasius, “What Authoritarianism Is . . . and Is Not: A Practice Perspective,” International Affairs 94, no. 3 (May 2018): 515–33.
- 3. For example, in 2019, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into ways that autocracies interact with the rules-based international system, including strategies of transnational repression; see “Autocracies and UK Foreign Policy Examined,” UK Parliament, May 31, 2019, https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-se…. See, also, Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw, Dictators Without Borders: Power and Money in Central Asia (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 2017.
About the authors:
Fiona B. Adamson is Associate Professor of International Relations – SOAS, University of London; Gerasimos Tsourapas is Associate Professor of Middle East Politics – University of Birmingham.
This essay is a part of the collection entitled "Perspectives on “Everyday” Transnational Repression in an Age of Globalization." Download the complete PDF for the full collection.