Stewart Bell | National Post | Sep 21, 2012 6:15 PM ET
TORONTO — The diplomat who represents one of Africa’s most authoritarian regimes said Friday his government would continue collecting what some call an “extortion tax” in Canada even though the Department of Foreign Affairs has demanded that it stop.
“We have to tax our people, it is our right,” Semere O. Micael, the Eritrean consul in Toronto, said after the National Post reported that Ottawa had sent a diplomatic note to his government making it clear he would be sent home if he continued to run the tax scheme.
Asked to respond to the consul’s comments, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s press secretary Rick Roth said: “We have made our position on this matter to the Eritreans clear, and we expect that to be respected. The government of Eritrea should not test our resolve on this matter.”
The one-party state, which lacks a formal economy, has been demanding that Eritreans living in Canada hand over 2% of their incomes and pay a national defence levy. The RCMP and United Nations have reported that those who refuse to pay suffer threats and harassment.
Thousands of Eritreans have sought refuge in Canada. But even in cities like Winnipeg and Toronto, they complain, the cash-strapped government they fled has tried to tap them for money. Refusal can mean reprisals against family members still in Eritrea and stonewalling by the consulate.
The UN Security Council passed a resolution last year condemning Eritrea for resorting to “extortion, threats of violence, fraud and other illicit means to collect taxes outside of Eritrea” and for using the “diaspora tax” to procure arms for rebel groups.
I am not going to collect the tax in my office. That’s all. That’s what the Canadian government was asking and they got the response
Canada took action last week, sending a diplomatic note to Eritrea advising that Mr. O. Micael’s accreditation would only be renewed once Ottawa had received written assurance he had stopped the tax scheme.
Eritrea responded in a letter on Tuesday that it would comply, but Mr. O. Micael said in a telephone interview that while he would no longer take in taxes at the consulate, Eritreans in Canada would still have to pay up.
“I am not going to collect the tax in my office. That’s all. That’s what the Canadian government was asking and they got the response,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we stop collecting.… Now instead of paying to my office they will pay it through the bank.”
David Matas, an international human rights lawyer who has been assisting Eritrean refugees in Winnipeg, said the consulate was not complying with the substance of Canada’s request.
“To me, that’s making light of the government request. It’s not treating it seriously. It’s trying to play fast and loose. It’s basically trying to pull a fast one on the government of Canada,” he said.
If they are going to get a service, they have to pay but I am not the one
He said Eritrea had also failed to address the other concern about the tax, which is that it has allegedly been used to aid armed groups such as the al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab in Somalia. “The problem isn’t just the tax but the way they use the money, which historically has been to fund terrorist groups.”
The consul said the taxes were longstanding Eritrean law and payment was mandatory.
“If they are going to get a service, they have to pay but I am not the one. I just won’t collect it. But they have to pay. Every Eritrean is paying it, so if they are Eritrean they have to pay it on their own way, you know. Instead of paying to the consulate they will send it to Eritrea.”
He also denied the money was for military purposes, even though the payment forms specify it is for national defence. “National defence doesn’t mean for military,” he said. “If you build schools, roads, so many things, it’s a defence, to defend the country, develop it.”
Aaron Berhane, a journalist who fled Eritrea after the government shut down his newspaper in 2001, said the consul was dodging. “What he is saying is, ‘I will not intimidate them to pay inside my office, but it is okay with Canada if I intimidate them to pay outside of my office.’ Of course, it can’t be okay and the Canadian government has to watch his activities closely.”