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  • Human Rights Research Center

Migration and Transnational Repression: why a rights-based approach is good for national security

Author: Morgan Banks

July 25, 2023

[Image source: Human Rights & Justice, Munk School, Citizen Lab]

Transnational repression refers to state-sponsored attempts to “stalk, intimidate, or assault” people abroad. In the United States, as elsewhere, transnational repression is considered a serious national security issue, as the purpose of these campaigns is generally political. The Chinese government, for instance, reportedly has numerous and long-established secret police stations abroad to repress dissidents overseas. Rising awareness of digital transnational repression (DTR), or intimidation facilitated by technology, has exacerbated these concerns, particularly given a number of case studies targeting sensitive political data. One US-based Iranian entrepreneur reports pervasive digital harassment, with blackmail attempts aiming to use him as an informant. In a higher-profile case, the remote hacking of a Quebec-stationed political activist facilitated the murder of a US-based Saudi dissident. These cases are a high priority for the national security community, and rightly so.

More recently, these initiatives have adopted the language of human rights, reflected in a number of high-level initiatives at all levels of government. The Transnational Repression Policy Act, for instance, would specifically include transnational repression in the State Department’s Annual Human Rights Report, while strengthening victim-centered resources elsewhere. These same sources often emphasize, correctly, that DTR is an egregious assault on civil liberties and human rights: the right to privacy, the right to public participation, and freedoms of assembly and association, to name only a few. Yet while recognizing the importance of these initiatives, it is also important to avoid limiting their focus to legally-recognized refugees. The tendency to overly associate asylum-seeking with repression can lead to more security-focused migration policies, which could weaken protection for victims of transnational repression while perpetuating harmful narratives about asylum-seekers. To effectively counter autocracy abroad, the US needs to re-examine its migration process at home.

By definition, transnational repression affects overseas nationals or people with specific connections to the respective country. That is a broader population than it sounds, as these campaigns have targeted human rights activists and public figures with only surface-level ties. Even unwitting people could be involved, as the build-up of surveillance algorithms could potentially expose them to future blackmail. US citizens with no immigrant-origin background, including a DHS agent, have also acted on behalf of repressive governments, indicating an additional issue with insider threat. Second, the designation “refugee,” with all its legal and political implications, is not a perfect measure of vulnerability to repression. Asylum cases can take years to adjudicate, and only 27% are directly approved. The majority of cases (72%) are referred to an immigration judge, which takes even longer to adjudicate with a marginally higher (46%) chance of approval. Additionally, independent investigations have questioned the quality of credible fear screenings, which may cause valid applications to be disapproved. And even if screened thoroughly, the current standard of “credible fear,” which already imposes a high burden of proof on asylum-seekers, may not capture the reality of DTR. Even cases that don’t meet the strict legal criteria required for asylum protection, including many migrants, often involve escape from severe repression at home. Thus, it feels disingenuous to identify transnational repression as a human rights concern, but continue to ignore the other rights-based crises that affect similar demographics in similar ways.

More directly, over-securitizing the asylum-seeking process just does not work, as a security or human rights strategy. For one, it silences people who could be invaluable cultural advisors, regional specialists, and political activists. The possibility of ending up back in the country one fled–as noted above, a statistically reasonable and well-founded one–can be a strong deterrent to speaking out. Moreover, tight restrictions and long wait times can induce vulnerability to coercion. While new asylees can petition for derivative status for their child or spouse, they cannot do so for other immediate family members without US citizenship. As a result, many asylees have loved ones abroad, such as parents or siblings, who are still subject to repression in the home state. Coercion-by-proxy highlights the double-edged sword of transnational relationships: while continued contact with relatives can provide asylees with emotional support and a medium for advocacy, it can also provide repressive governments with sensitive information about social networks and other blackmailable digital content. This issue can also impact non-asylees, who may face extortion or coercion during and after migration–for instance, by smugglers. In both situations, the difficulty of transnational relationships, and the easy access afforded by technology, both increase people’s vulnerability to coercion, regardless of their status. The slow and limited pathways to family reunification only prolong this vulnerability.

The prevailing security approach has also resulted in tension between law enforcement and diaspora communities, potentially inflaming the very issues it intended to solve. A history of surveillance and profiling has eroded trust in many diaspora communities, which inhibits collaboration on issues of mutual importance. Collaborative development of surveillance technology, sometimes with nations that themselves engage in DTR, likely does not increase trust or credibility in diaspora communities. And, as genuinely useful as these DTR-focused initiatives are, they are hard to reconcile with other policies that limit avenues for seeking asylum at all. In a broader sense, this approach makes an implicit equivalence between people fleeing a regime, and the regime’s violence towards them. It obscures the real enemy of authoritarianism, while also feeding existing narratives of asylum-seekers as “security risk[s],” “liabilit[ies],” or “masses needing to be managed and controlled.” By extension, it creates a false sense of distance and security, as if not having an asylee background guarantees safety. None of this bodes well for national security, or global human rights.

If the US is serious about upholding human rights and effectively countering authoritarianism, then examining our migration process is a good starting point. Giving survivors the safety to speak out–through decreasing adjudication wait times, improving the asylum screening process, increasing legal support, and providing opportunities to bring family in-country–can both reduce overall vulnerabilities to repression, and increase the volume of opposition abroad. Integrating asylees into the broader landscape of US political life would also counter the frame of asylees as a security risk, and normalize their activism and involvement in issues of global importance. These critiques and recommendations are hardly novel, as migration advocates have been making the same claims for decades. But acting on these critiques would go a long way in signaling the US’s commitment to human rights worldwide, in addition to and regardless of their security concerns related to transnational repression.



Adjudication: the process of reviewing an asylum claim and deciding whether to approve, refer, or deny it.

Asylum-seeker: someone with credible fear of persecution in the country they fled from, who applies for protection while inside the host country (or at a port of entry).

Authoritarianism: a form of government with centralized control, where those holding political power aren’t constitutionally responsible to the people they govern.

Autocracy: a system of government by one person with absolute power.

Coercion: forcing someone to do something, usually via threat.

Coercion-by-proxy: forcing someone to do something, usually via threat to their family or loved ones.

Diaspora: a community of people living away from their country of origin.

Disingenuous: not sincere, typically by pretending that one knows less about something than one really does.

Dissident: someone who openly challenges an established institution.

Egregious: shocking, horrifying.

Immigrant: a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country.

Migrant: a person who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.

Refugee: someone with credible fear of persecution in the country they fled from, who is applying for protection while outside the host country.

Repression: the action of subduing someone or something by force.

Transnational: extending or operating across national boundaries.


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