The United States has long served as a place of refuge for those fleeing repressive governments. But as authoritarianism creeps across the world and social media grants dissidents a border-crossing megaphone, exiled activists are facing increasingly aggressive blowback from the countries they fled.
In a new report released Thursday, pro-democracy think tank and watchdog Freedom House said it had recorded 85 new incidents of “public, direct, physical incidents of transnational repression” in 2021, bringing the total recorded between the start of 2014 and the end of last year to 735.
Even those living in the world’s preeminent superpower aren’t spared. Iran, China, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and others have targeted those in the United States, Freedom House found, and were “increasingly and more aggressively disregarding US laws to threaten, harass, surveil, stalk, and even plot to physically harm people across the country.”
The act of transnational repression goes back at least decades: During the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently crossed borders to assassinate so-called “enemies of the state.” But the way some governments act now has become “brazen, even outlandish,” Freedom House’s Yana Gorokhovskaia told me in a phone call.
Autocratic governments were cooperating to promote the alarming idea, Gorokhovskaia said, that “people do not have the right to criticize those in power, no matter where they are in the world — not only at home but once they leave home as well.”
Transnational repression came to Brooklyn last summer. Masih Alinejad, an Iranian American journalist and activist, was the apparent target of a plot that could have seen her abducted from a waterfront neighborhood in New York City and taken out of the country, possibly by speedboat, for an uncertain fate.
“This is not some far-fetched movie plot. We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S.-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran,” FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement announcing the plot last July.
Much of the harassment that targets dissidents on U.S. soil is less dramatic but no less powerful. Gorokhovskaia noted that the incidents counted for the reportthis year didn’t include the subtler forms of pressure, from online abuse and hacking claims to blackmail via threats to relatives and friends still living back in their home country.
In 2020, a New York City police officer originally from Tibet was charged with acting as an illegal agent of the Chinese government and using his position to collect information about the Tibetan diaspora. The officer, Baimadajie Angwang, had been granted asylum in the United States at the age of 17 after claiming he would be tortured if he returned to China.
Freedom House interviewed a dozen people from other places now living in the United States about how the threat of transnational repression had influenced them. “When you don’t feel safe in your house in the U.S., that’s a disaster,” Sardar Pashaei, a former wrestler and activist from Iran, told the report’s authors. “That’s a shame. … Where else on this planet should we go to feel safe?”
Gorokhovskaia said: “When you talk about authoritarianism, I think often we tend to talk about it as a problem over there. This is a problem right here, and it’s happening to people who live in this country, many of whom are citizens or permanent residents. It really limits their exercise of rights that I think most of us think are ordinary and fundamental.”
The U.S. government has taken some steps to push back against the problem. The Justice Department has begun indicting individuals in connection with transnational repression while the FBI has been tracking the crimes and published a website that gives victims advice and raises awareness.
But there is more that could be done. Freedom House points to the difficult path to lawful immigration status that exists for many immigrant communities, even those that have legitimate claims for asylum. The United States is also a diplomatic ally of some of the countries targeting dissidents abroad, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s attacks on foreign critics were brought to international attention by the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a contributor to The Washington Post and a U.S. permanent resident, in Istanbul. But the United States has sought to repair relations with Saudi Arabia in the years since; it never moved to personally sanction Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
For Saudi dissidents in the United States, this pragmaticism sent a message. “MBS was not forgiven, but he was not sanctioned. He was not included,” one unnamed Saudi in the United States told Freedom House. “Right after that, things quickly changed for us. … It seemed like there was a reaction from the Saudi government that, okay, there’s no consequences. We can do whatever we want.”
By its nature, transnational repression is hard for any one country to fix. International bodies like Interpol are part of the problem, with countries like Turkey, Russia and China using the crime-fighting body to issue Red Notices against dissidents and exiles, Freedom House writes, that allow them to reach people abroad.
There has been some progress. Congress passed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in late 2021, calling on the United States to use its influence as Interpol’s largest funder to better influence the body. In March, the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States called on Interpol to suspend Russian authorities’ access to systems after the invasion of Ukraine.
Freedom House calls for more to be done, with like-minded governments working together to come to an international standard of transnational repression and working with technology companies and bodies like the United Nations to limit its impact.
It won’t be easy, but the problem is unlikely to go away soon. As Freedom House and other bodies have noted, authoritarianism has been spreading in recent years and democracy declining. But the flip side of growing transnational repression is that social media and online communications pose new threats to autocratic governments.
“There have always been people in exile and people who have remained engaged in the politics of their homeland from exile. But it’s undeniable that people’s voices are amplified by being online, by social media platforms,” Gorokhovskaia said. “There is this feedback loop. They can stay in touch with what’s happening at home, and they can be advocates on behalf of causes and movements at home from abroad.”