Refugees in Canada…torn between safety and ‘funding’ the regimes they fled from
Canadian dollar remittances are helping to enrich autocratic regimes around the world
For refugees like me being granted protection sounds delightful, a chance to be safe in Canada. However, on careful analysis, this is a double-edged sword.
In particular, the significant Canadian dollar remittances that refugees in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and elsewhere in Canada wire back to their home countries help enrich the very autocratic regimes in Zimbabwe, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, etc. that these same refugees ran from.
A recent in-depth article in the Globe & Mail titled: “Eritrea’s strife goes global as diasporas, including those in Canada, clash at cultural festivals”, prompted me to think about this aspect of emigration and the survival of despotic regimes. But first, I am a protected person in Canada who ran away from the autocratic regime that has governed Zimbabwe for the last 44 years.
I was relieved to restart my life here in Canada, a country perceived globally as a hub for free speech. It felt, at the time, like some sort of personal ‘victory’ over the autocratic governments I and thousands of other dissidents left behind.
However, last year I began to discard my beliefs that every emigrant who settles in the ‘Free World’ (Canada, Australia, or Europe for example) helps weaken dictatorship.
Data from the World Bank was sobering. Remittances to Zimbabwe from her diaspora-based citizens like me hit $630 million USD in 2019 before jumping to $1 billion USD in 2021 and $1.658 billion USD in 2022.
Knowing that almost a third of remittances to Zimbabwe flow informally and undocumented, it is plausible to suggest that in 2023, nearly $2 billion flowed to Zimbabwe from its diaspora citizens based in Canada, Germany, the US, the UK, and South Africa. This is huge and Zimbabwe, a country of roughly 15 million inhabitants, is now punching above its weight remittance-wise. It has climbed to the league of the ‘Top Remittance Recipients in the Sub-Saharan Africa Region, 2022’ as per the World Bank’s audited data.
It is important to humanize these mesmerizing billions of dollars. This is simply us working in Ottawa, and elsewhere around the world, wiring our hard-won earnings to save family members overseas from hunger, disease, or lack of quality education. Nothing more.
However, as squeezed citizens run away from their countries, the autocratic regimes that we left behind are getting fabulously rich, swimming in remittances.
Every remittance coming from Canada via Western Union, Moneygram, etc. gets taxed in countries like Zimbabwe and Iran and the millions scooped from such taxes are squandered by unaccountable elites. In short, the more citizens flee despotic governments and find refuge in places like Canada, the richer and more powerful the regimes get. Indeed, it is often to the advantage of regimes for their citizens to run away to Canada or Australia because more billions in remittance monies will flow in the other direction.
Some regimes are even brazen about it: the autocratic regime governing Eritrea for the last three decades is reportedly, and forcibly, ‘taxing’ Eritreans who live overseas a sum of money each month or else their relatives back home get victimized. It is impossible to ascertain with finality due to the denials of the merciless regime ruling over Eritrea along the ‘Horn of Africa’ region but credible news reports and a 2017 study from the Tilburg University School of Humanities concluded that Eritrea was extracting a 2% ‘levy’ from its citizens abroad. This was one of the furors behind the violence that accompanied Eritrea’s diaspora festival in Toronto last August.
North Korea is also known to engage in the same tactics. In 2017, a groundbreaking investigation by the UN revealed that North Korea was forcing 50,000 of its citizens to go abroad annually to work in China, Russia, Malaysia, and the Middle East. Not only were their employers paying the North Korean government for these workers, but the workers’ meager wages also ended up supporting the regime in the form of remittances.
Make no mistake about this, as immigrants in Canada, the US, Europe, or elsewhere we are prosperous enough, but we are also helpless in this dilemma. If we don’t wire money back, our families will be overwhelmed by hunger.
However, if we send money, the regimes we left get wealthier from taxing our remittances. These are the conflicting emotions emigrants grapple with daily while walking the streets of Toronto, London, Chicago, or Paris.
I don’t even want to pretend that there is a way to better this. I am simply writing on this under-explored aspect of international migration, global finances, and the illusion that democracy can be strengthened when pro-democracy activists leave their home countries to go abroad.
This is a catch-22 situation. Wire money from abroad to families living in authoritarian countries – and these regimes benefit massively. Withhold remittances – and our next of kin go by on empty stomachs.
Don’t ever think our life is perfect just because we are living ‘safely’ abroad – here.