Following reports on Chinese government outposts set up to monitor and harass nationals on bloc territory, information is emerging on similar third-country operations, with governments around Europe often evasively confirming their existence but coming up short on action.
In September, Safeguard Defenders, a human rights NGO, published a report on what they called Chinese “overseas police service stations” that violate the international rule of law.
The number of affected individuals globally is substantial. Authors say Beijing claimed that 230,000 suspects of fraud were “persuaded to return” to China between April 2021 to July 2022.
Based on the investigation, 14 of the 27 EU member states have been found to have at least one overseas police station, with a total of 32 police stations operating in the EU so far. Spain is home to the most outposts with at least nine in operation.
Amid the media attention on the stations, reports of other foreign police stations have emerged.
“Obviously, the Chinese government is not the only one doing it,” Campaign Director from Safeguard Defenders Laura Harth told EURACTIV, adding that Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are among those conducting similar activities. However, she said, these countries do not run such a large-scale operation as the Chinese Communist Party.
Keeping tabs on foreign activity
In the Czech Republic, currently holding the rotating Council presidency, the Security Information Service (BIS) acknowledges the presence of third-state entities, including China, Russia and Middle Eastern countries, that are pursuing activities “in an attempt to gain control over their own diaspora”.
“In general, non-democratic regimes are active in this sense,” BIS spokesperson Ladislav Šticha told EURACTIV.cz.
For now, authorities in Prague say they have no information that these activities so far have had “an impact on the security of the state”.
However, were there too much pressure from third countries, for instance, in case of an attempted “hijacking” of third-country citizens, Czech authorities may step in.
Meanwhile, the French government is stepping up resources for “specialised services” to monitor “actions of foreign services or state structures” that may be counter the country’s laws and react “immediately” if they do, Le Monde reported.
The French Foreign Affairs Ministry told EURACTIV France they expect entities to respect “the enjoyment of individual freedoms and the guarantee of fundamental rights of the people present on its territory.”
Although there is no documented proof of unofficial police stations from China or any third country in Finland, the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) say their counterparts from certain authoritarian countries monitor, control, and harass their citizens living in the Nordic country.
These types of refugee espionage operations typically target individuals who are perceived as political opponents in their countries of origin or belong to a particular ethnic minority, SIS told EURACTIV.
The Swedish government has also said that several countries are conducting “security threat activities” against and in Sweden, particularly Russia, Iran, and China, the Swedish Security Service, Säpo, confirmed to Aftonbladet.
According to Safeguard Defenders’ Harth, some EU member states and other countries have failed to respond to the issue.
In Germany, the existence of such facilities has been known to the government for some time, according to reporting by NDR and WDR. A follow-up of the situation is yet to be announced.
In Greece, the Foreign Ministry’s representatives were ” unavailable” to comment.
The Netherlands’ response was similar, with the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service (AIVD) and the Foreign Affairs Ministry saying they could not comment too much on specific states or activities.
However, the Minister of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Bo de Koning, told EURACTIV that “appropriate organisations are continuously working on any signals they receive in this regard.”
More coordinated approach needed
Harth believes this is not only an issue of foreign policy, but it poses a domestic threat.
In her view, governments should implement strategies within interior ministries, justice, law enforcement, universities, and anywhere networks that undermine people’s rights might be operating.
Governments should be investigating these stations, implementing protection mechanisms, and educating local law enforcement and local courts, Harth added.
“We would really like to see a more coordinated approach by democratic nations across the transatlantic alliance,” Harth said, adding that imposing visa restrictions and coordinated sanctions on officials responsible or complicit in these types of activities would be a start.
(Sofia Stuart Leeson, Pekka Vänttinen, Charles Szumski | EURACTIV.com; Oliver Noyan | EURACTIV.de; Davide Basso | EURACTIV.fr; Aneta Zachova | EURACTIV.cz; Sofia Mandilara | EURACTIV.gr)