The aim of refugee espionage is to control and silence

Non-democratic countries sometimes try to influence people who have fled abroad, even after they have settled in a new homeland. The fictitious case of Mehmut illustrates the reality of such refugee espionage operations.

Illustration blue metal fence.

Refugee espionage is a phenomenon in which a foreign power gathers intelligence on its former or current citizens living abroad. The aim of this intelligence gathering is to control and silence people or groups who have settled in another country. Migrants belonging to political opposition or other groups that are considered a threat by the rulers of undemocratic countries are often a target of espionage.

Such espionage operations may involve harassment of intelligence targets or their relatives by the authorities in their country of origin. One country that engages in the practice of refugee espionage is China.

The following fictional case illustrates a typical example of refugee espionage by China. While not describing any real individual in particular, it includes many features that are common to such cases.

Mehmut came to Finland in 2010 as an asylum seeker from Xinjiang in western China. His brother had taken part in anti-Chinese protests in Xinjiang in 2009, and his family had been persecuted since that time. Mehmut was granted asylum in Finland and subsequently secured Finnish citizenship. Life in Finland was peaceful, and Mehmut and his wife found work with a Finnish cleaning company.

Mehmut returned to China in 2016 to visit his parents in Xinjiang. The trip did not go as expected. Despite Mehmut’s new citizenship, Chinese intelligence authorities detained him and his wife for interrogation immediately on arrival. The aim was to convince Mehmut to spy on other Uighurs with a view to monitoring the situation of the Uighur community in Finland, determining how many Uighurs lived in Finland, who had applied for asylum, and how many participated in political activities, such as demonstrations. Biometric identifiers were also taken from Mehmut and his wife without their consent. Mehmut declined to cooperate with the intelligence authorities and managed to bribe officials into allowing him to leave China and return to Finland safely.

This was nevertheless not the end of the matter for the Chinese security authorities. They began paying regular visits to the home of Mehmut’s parents, demanding detailed information about the family’s children living abroad. They then began to apply pressure on Mehmut through the Chinese WeChat messaging application, regularly demanding information on the situation of his family in Finland. Contact with relatives remaining in China has since been possible only through the Chinese intelligence services. For example, Chinese intelligence authorities have demanded pictures of the family’s travel documents and full-length photographs of all family members including a daily newspaper in order for the authorities to verify that the material is current. Mehmut once had to photograph the entire family at Senate Square in Helsinki in order for the Chinese to verify that they were living in Finland.

Pictures of other Uighurs are occasionally sent to Mehmut with a request to identify them in Finland. Mehmut was also assigned to photograph Uighur families housed in a Finnish refugee reception centre. Mehmut declined all requests relating to individuals outside of his own family. Chinese authorities have stated that Mehmut’s family members in China will be at risk if they do not receive the requested information. Last year Mehmut received a call from his father, who had been detained in a local police station. The Chinese authorities promised to release the father if Mehmut agreed to cooperate. Mehmut refused, and has not heard from his parents since that time.

Mehmut no longer dares to return to China. He fears that he would be arrested immediately at the border. This has happened to several of his friends.

Refugee espionage is not a crime in Finland

criminalisation of refugee espionage in 2012, and continues to believe that this should be a non-complainant criminal offence subject to public prosecution. New intelligence legislation has enabled Supo to gather intelligence concerning refugee espionage without suspicion of a crime if there is a concrete threat to national security. Criminalisation would, above all, be an aid to safeguarding the rights and interests of the individual and the country.

Refugee espionage has led to convictions in Sweden

In 2019 the Stockholm District Court sentenced a Swedish-Iraqi man to imprisonment for two and a half years for unauthorised intelligence operations. The court found that the man spied on representatives of the Iranian opposition in Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands for nearly four years.

A Stockholm court also sentenced a man of Tibetan origin to a term of imprisonment in 2018 after he had gathered information on ethnic Tibetans living in Sweden at the request of China. The sentence was based on an offence of engaging in aggravated unlawful intelligence operations against a person. The man served as an agent for the Chinese civilian intelligence service (MSS).

An Uighur man was imprisoned in 2009 under the same statute for espionage targeting the Uighur community.