Calls are being made for a probe into claims that members of Australia's Eritrean community are being forced to pay a so-called 'diaspora tax'.
By
Santilla Chingaipe

Source:
World News Australia
17 Mar 2014 - 7:48 PM  UPDATED 15 Aug 2014 - 6:59 PM

(Transcript from World News Radio)

The federal government is being urged to investigate claims that representatives of the Eritrean government are forcing members of Australia's Eritrean community to pay an income tax banned by the United Nations.

It follows a report on SBS featuring documentation indicating that the practice is occurring in Australia.

READ MORE: Australian Eritreans 'forced' to pay illegal tax

This is despite a directive from the federal government to Eritrean officials to stop imposing the two per cent tax on Australian residents.

Santilla Chingaipe has more.

According to the UN, the Eritrean government has been destabilising the Horn of Africa by redirecting funds raised through a so-called diaspora tax to armed groups, including Al Shabaab.

Members of the Eritrean community say they're being forced to pay the two per cent tax on their incomes to the Eritrean Consulate in Melbourne - the country's only diplomatic office in Australia.

David, who does not want to be identified, has shown SBS receipts from the consulate indicating he's been paying the tax for years.

"When I came here, I wanted to renew my passport because I was still a skilled migrant, so I went there and my passport had expired and I said I need to extend it because I wanted to travel, so I went to the Consulate and they asked me to pay 2 percent."

Members of the Eritrean community say failure to pay the tax means they cannot obtain new passports, or other services from the Eritrean government.

And they claim family members back in Eritrea can be intimidated by government agents if they don't pay.

The federal opposition's spokeswoman on foreign affairs, Tanya Plibersek, says the reports are concerning.

"We know that in 2011 the United Nations Security Council banned the paying of such a tax and the Australian government at the time made very clear to the Consul here that the tax should not be collected here in Australia."

The Australian Greens' deputy leader Adam Bandt raised the issue of the tax on behalf of the Eritrean community with the previous Labor government.

He says he's concerned by the claims that community members in Australia are still being asked to pay the tax.

"It's very worrying that people who have come to this country seeking a better life are now being pursued. They're forced to pay a tax, pay money by blackmail or they won't get services."

Tanya Plibersek says the federal government needs to investigate the allegations.

"I think it's very important to establish the facts as a first step. So if members of the Eritrean community have further allegations it's very important to contact the government with those allegations to ensure that there is a full disclosure of this practice occurring here in Australia."

Ahmed Abdelrehim is from a group calling itself the Freedom Friday Project, which represents Eritrean youth.

He says he would like to see the Australian government take stronger action.

"As an Australian Eritrean, I don't want anyone in my country to intimidate me in Australia and I don't want anyone to force me to do anything that is illegal I'd like the Australian government to be very tough and say that this is an illegal activity and should stop immediately."

Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt agrees.

"At the very least the Australian government should put the representatives of the Eritrean regime on notice that they must stop this practice and give them a very clear directive that it is not permissable for this kind of blackmailing to happen on Australian soil."

Eritrea's top diplomat in Australia, Yassin Omer Mahmoud, freely admits that the Melbourne consulate does impose a two per cent levy on services.

He describes it as a contribution to national recovery, and denies that it is compulsory.

And he says he's seen no directive from the Australian government telling him to stop asking for the payments.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has told SBS when it becomes aware of potential breaches of Australian laws it passes that information to the relevant federal and state law enforcement authorities.

It says it does not itself have investigatory powers into alleged breaches of Australian domestic law.