May 29, 2013 4:18 pm

Expulsion of Eritrea’s Canadian consul a ‘first step’ to ending extortion: refugee

The Eritrean government, under the 20-year rule of President Issaias Aferworki, is considered one of most repressive regimes in the world. (File photo)

Peter Busomoke (AFP)/Getty Images

VANCOUVER – The Canadian government is moving to expel the country’s only accredited diplomat from Eritrea in the country, following reports the consulate is charging expatriates taxes to fund the Eritrean regime.

The Dept. of Foreign Affairs has given Consul General Semere Ghebremarian O. Micael until 12 p.m. ET on June 5 to leave the country.

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Recent reports highlighted accusations that the consul was extorting money from Eritreans in Canada by threatening family members back home and other methods of coercion.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Wednesday that for legal reasons, he would not comment on the reasons for the expulsion, but said Micael’s actions were “inconsistent” with his diplomatic duties.

Foreign Affairs previously warned the consulate in Toronto about using its diplomatic mission to solicit funds for the Eritrean regime and military by charging taxes to Eritrean-Canadians.

Global News made several calls to the consulate on Wednesday, but was unable to reach Micael by the time of publication.

Ghezae Hagos is happy with the Canadian government’s actions. He called the move “a first step” but doesn’t think the move will change much.

He came to Canada from Eritrea as a political refugee in 1999. He now lives in Winnipeg and works with refugee claimants through the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council.

Hagos said the fees are charged when consular services – such as acquiring a new passport, visas, permits, and land purchase documents– are needed. But it’s not just the consulate that collects them, Hagos said in a phone interview.

“The consul has been expelled, but he has representatives in other cities,” he said. “As long as those people are allowed to do what they have been doing, they’ll find a way to do it.”
When services are needed, the consulate charges Eritrean-Canadians a tax of 2 per cent of their income.

There’s also a fee, called a donation, of up to $500 going toward defending Eritrea against “Ethiopian invasion.” (The tax is $500 if married or $300 for a single person, according to a 2011 article in the Winnipeg Free Press)

Eritrea has a tumultuous relationship with neighbouring Ethiopia, from which it declared independence in 1993. The UN accused the Eritrean government in 2011, of plotting a major attack on an African Union Summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa – one that would have caused “mass civilian casualties,” the UN report alleges.

According to the UN, the Eritrean government has been a supporter of the terrorist organizations al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab.  A later report showed those ties had been cut.

The Canadian government warned the consulate last year that it was violating UN Security Council sanctions. Canadian law also prohibits giving the Eritrean military financial assistance.

Lawyer David Matas, who represents the Winnipeg-based HIDMONA Eritrean-Canadian Human Rights Group, of which Hagos is a member, said Canada had to expel the Consul General after he ignored repeated warnings.

He said in a phone interview the move won’t change the Eritrean government policy of extorting money from Eritrean nationals. But, it will help limit it from happening to Eritreans in Canada.

“We can’t tell the Eritrean government what to do and we can’t control what they do. But, we can control what they do on Canadian soil.” Matas said.

He said the expulsion will serve as a warning to  others, who solicit funds and promote the payment of the fees on behalf of the Eritrean government.

One of the consulate’s “representatives,” according to Hagos, is Yonas Zeru. He has lived in Vancouver for 31 years and owns a coffee shop in Richmond.

He “voluntarily” provides Eritreans with the papers they need to apply for consular services. He said the allegations of extortion are completely baseless and the fees in question are entirely optional.

“You don’t need to pay [the] two per cent, if you don’t want to,” Zeru said. “You can count the people that have a problem with this.”

He also said the $500 donation was something that came into effect between the Eritrean-Ethiopian war, between 1998 and 2000.

“Because no one helped Eritrea, all the Eritrean people agreed to pay 500 bucks for every war they have,” he said. There was also another fee of $1,500, if you didn’t pay the defence donation, to help rebuild the country, he explained.

“If you don’t pay that, nothing will happen,” he said, adding he could find hundreds of Eritreans who have never had an issue with the consulate or the fees.

Human Rights Watch considers the 20-year regime of President Issaias Afwerki “one of the world’s most oppressive governments.”

In a 2012 report, it said Eritreans are faced with numerous human rights abuses including torture, restriction on freedom of speech, indefinite conscription, and arbitrary and indefinite detention.

*With files from Heather Loney and Postmedia News

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