OAKLAND — Armed rebels in the famine-ravaged Horn of Africa are being partially bankrolled by money from immigrants in the Bay Area, according to a United Nations report.
The East African nation of Eritrea finances militants across the region with the help of money funneled from Eritrean-Americans, who are pressured by the government to send a percentage of their incomes and other donations home, the report says.
Tens of millions of dollars are sent annually to Eritrea through a 2 percent income tax imposed on people of Eritrean origin who live outside the African country.
Not all Eritrean immigrants pay, but some do out of a sense of duty to the impoverished country. Others pay because the Eritrean government can penalize them if they refuse.
Those who pay “are indirectly supporting the dictatorship,” said Solomon Assefaw of Oakland-based Eritrean Youth for Change, which opposes the Eritrean government. “No other country in the world does this except the Eritrean government.”
Oakland is one of the top U.S. hubs for Eritrean immigrants, many of them refugees who fled during a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. Immigrants from the Bay Area and elsewhere whose cash once supported the rebel movement are now a major moneymaker for the one-party government that has ruled Eritrea since it gained its independence in 1993.
The U.N. report backs up long-held suspicions that the tax collection and other fundraising may violate international treaties, and that money is being funneled to the al-Shabab insurgency in Somalia and other militant groups that have destabilized the region. The report comes as al-Shabab has exacerbated a devastating famine in Somalia by blocking incoming aid and outgoing refugees.
Released last week, the report asserts that Eritrea planned a terrorist bombing attack earlier this year in Addis Ababa, the capital city of its rival and former colonizer, Ethiopia, and details how Eritrea patronizes armed groups with weapons and training through a “vast and complex informal economy” run by government and military figures and funded by Eritreans living abroad.
The U.S. government curtailed the fundraising in California in 2007 during a diplomatic dispute when it shuttered downtown Oakland’s Eritrean Consulate, a branch of the Eritrean Embassy, but some Bay Area organizations remain closely tied to the Eritrean government and continue to collect money.
A document obtained by the Bay Area News Group asks vendors at the upcoming Eritrean Western USA Festival, which happens in Oakland and Richmond next weekend, to write their checks to the “Embassy of Eritrea,” but mail them to the nonprofit Eritrean Community Cultural Civic Center in the Temescal district of Oakland.