Transnational Repression: 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, international organizations, technology companies, and civil society think about how they can respond to protect exiles and diasporas.
Quick Links: 2022 Report | 2021 Report | 2020 Special Essays | Country Case Studies | News & Perspectives | Methodology
About the Project
Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression examines what is being done to protect exiles and diaspora members who are being intimidated and threatened by the governments from which they fled. This report assesses the responses put forward by the governments of countries where exiles and diasporas reside, by international organizations, and by technology companies.
It represents the culmination of the second phase of our research into transnational repression. It combines an analysis of the policies of nine host countries, interviews with members of diasporas targeted by transnational repression who reside in the United States, interviews with staff at technology companies, and data on 735 physical, direct transnational repression incidents that occurred between 2014 and 2021. With this report, we aim to advance the ongoing conversation among members of the general public, civil society, media, and policymakers on countering this practice.
Over a 16-month period, we developed an original methodology for evaluating policy responses to transnational repression, trained and collaborated with 19 in-country analysts to gather data, and held two roundtables to review and refine our findings and recommendations. Analysts included Robin Vikström, Jeniina Kotajoki, Bhanubhatra Jittiang, Kasira Cheeppensook, Surachanee Sriyai, Ben Orlebeke, Geoffrey Cameron, Jennifer Kandjii, Simon Howell, Leonie Schulte, Isabel Soloaga, Wanaporn Techagaisiyavnit, Srisombat Chokprajakchat, Dhanakorn Mulaphong, and Bogdan Voron. Collaboration with other academics and civil society researchers around the world was also integral to the success of this project.
Yana Gorokhovskaia and Isabel Linzer led the project and cowrote the final report and eight of the nine country reports. Research Associate Bochen Han provided research support and wrote one country report. Intern Paulina Song helped to catalog and vet incidents for the transnational repression database. The project was made possible through the generous support of the National Endowment for Democracy.
Our data collection and coding methods can be viewed at below. Data is available on request through the [email protected] email account. Please use the subject line “Transnational Repression Data Request.”
The Origins of Our Work
This report builds on the findings of Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: The Global Scale and Scope of Transnational Repression—the first global study of this dangerous practice—which Freedom House released in February 2021. The first phase of our research sprang from our engagement with academic researchers dedicated to examining transnational repression. Nate Schenkkan, Freedom House’s former Director of Research Strategy, developed the idea for the project in part from conversations with Edward Lemon, John Heathershaw, Saipira Furstenberg, Dana Moss, Gillian Kennedy, Fiona Adamson, Marcus Michaelsen, Alexander Cooley, and Ahmet Erdi Öztürk. Freedom House continues to owe a debt of gratitude to these experts for their ongoing support of our work. Our first-phase research was made possible through the generous support of the Achelis & Bodman Foundation.
Schenkkan and Linzer wrote the first report. Research Associate Tessa Weal and interns Joy Hammer and Reema Saleh provided research assistance. Sarah Cook, Research Director for China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, contributed research on China, as did consultants Emile Dirks, Amy Lin, and Mustafa Aksu (Uyghur Human Rights Project).
Finally, none of this would have been possible without exiles from Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Rwanda, Russia, China, Turkey, Vietnam, Equatorial Guinea, and Ethiopia who agreed to speak with us about their experiences of transnational repression. Their courage and resilience are an inspiration.
New Report: Defending Democracy in Exile
This new report documents the growing phenomenon of transnational repression, finding that there have been at least 735 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression since 2014. 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.
More From the 2022 Report
Transnational Repression in the United States
Attacks against foreign dissidents living in the United States have taken place since at least the 1950s, but operations by foreign intelligence agents have intensified in recent years. Read more in our report, "Unsafe in America."
Policy Recommendations: Transnational Repression
Governments that host targeted groups and individuals need to improve their security, migration, and foreign policies to ensure appropriate protection for at-risk groups and accountability for perpetrators.
Download: "Defending Democracy in Exile"
Download a PDF copy of Freedom House's new 2022 report on transnational repression, "Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression."
2021 Report: Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach
Our first report on transnational repression was an effort to understand the scale and scope of the practice—in which governments reach across national borders to silence dissent among their diaspora and exile communities. Freedom House assembled cases of transnational repression from public sources, including UN and government documents, human rights reports, and credible news outlets, in order to generate a detailed picture of this global phenomenon.
Essays: Perspectives on "Everyday" Transnational Repression in an Age of Globalization
Host Country Case Studies
Germany: Transnational Repression Host Country Case Study
Sweden: Transnational Repression Host Country Case Study
Turkey: Transnational Repression Host Country Case Study
Thailand: Transnational Repression Host Country Case Study
Canada: Transnational Repression Host Country Case Study
Ukraine: Transnational Repression Host Country Case Study
Origin Country Case Studies
China: Transnational Repression Origin Country Case Study
Turkey: Transnational Repression Origin Country Case Study
Rwanda: Transnational Repression Origin Country Case Study
Russia: Transnational Repression Origin Country Case Study
Iran: Transnational Repression Origin Country Case Study
The Long Arm of the Authoritarian State
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.
More on Transnational Repression
Iran: Plot to Kidnap American Writer Highlights Threat of Transnational Repression
July 14, 2021
Turkey: Authorities Abdicate Responsibility, Deny Justice in Khashoggi Case
April 8, 2022
Activists urge release of ‘Hotel Rwanda’ hero Rusesabagina opens in new tab
April 14, 2022