Feb 28, 2022

Refugee Espionage: An EU Model

As part of its Compromised Spaces campaign, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) has published a briefing paper on the criminalization of "refugee espionage", the rising phenomenon where non-European countries, led by China, Iran and Russia, harass and take out reprisals against human rights defenders who have fled to Europe. The UNPO's prior work identifies international reprisals as a significant problem for Europe, with reprisals regularly being carried out against human rights defenders participating at United Nations meetings in Europe, or against those living more permanently in Europe, and argues that an EU response is needed. In December, leading members of the European Parliament sent a written question to the European Commission, pressing for such a response.  The UNPO's briefing paper highlights divergent practice across 15 European states, and recommends a European Directive on refugee espionage.  In light of the current crisis in Ukraine, and the credible fears of even more reprisals being carried out in Europe as a result of it, this briefing paper and its recommendations take on added urgency.

Awareness of third-country espionage activity within the EU has increased in recent years following a series of high-profile cases. In April 2021, the UNPO published a report highlighting the extent and wide-scope of this activity. This built off of a series of investigations conducted by the UNPO since 2016 into the extent to which authoritarian states seek to limit the voices of their detractors internationally.

In this briefing paper we outline one way that European states are seeking to address this phenomenon, through the criminalization of ‘refugee espionage’ in order to identify one avenue for EU action on this issue. ‘Refugee espionage’ is a term referring to incidents where the authorities of foreign States carry out intelligence activities against diaspora communities, refugees, political dissidents and regime critics who have sought safety in other countries. The purpose of foreign states pursuing ‘refugee espionage’ abroad are generally to undermine, neutralise or eliminate political opposition, thus ensuring regime stability and a monopoly on power.

Often the foreign states in question will not use their intelligence services merely for gathering and analysing information and disseminating the findings - other methods commonly used include: harassment, threats and intimidation; physical attacks; cyber-attacks; abductions; or even assassinations. Actors involved commonly include: diplomats and other embassy officials; criminal networks and own state organizations or institutions; and own citizens as informants, sometimes via coercion.

‘Refugee espionage’ not only infringes the fundamental rights and freedoms and safety and well-being of the individuals targeted, but also poses serious threats to the internal security and national sovereignty of the host countries where these acts take place. Russia, Iran and China are the three most commonly cited perpetrators of refugee espionage by national security authorities in Europe.

In fact, many countries in Europe explicitly recognize and acknowledge the serious nature of threats diaspora, refugees and dissidents face by foreign intelligence. However, not all countries have sufficient criminal legislation in place to ensure justice and accountability. Varying approaches to the criminalization of ‘refugee espionage’ in Europe can be seen. For instance, in Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, refugee espionage is criminalized most explicitly (provisions criminalize the acts of obtaining/providing information detrimentally about another individual in order to benefit a foreign state). In Austria, France, and Germany, for example, the inclusion of refugee espionage within the countries general espionage provisions depends on statutory interpretation (whether it is ‘liable to prejudice the fundamental interests of the nation’ for instance). In Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Finland, espionage is either not criminalized at all, or is narrowly defined through largely out-of-date provisions, confined to the collection or distribution of state secrets and sensitive defense/national security information.

In light of such divergences, coordinated EU action, such as a directive addressing ‘refugee espionage’, a dedicated task force, or similar activities may contribute to law enforcement better addressing hostile foreign state reprisals and transnational repression in Europe.

Photo: Yashar Yalkun, the president of the Belgian Uighur Association