The news of suspected espionage shocked Sweden's tiny Tibetan diaspora of 130 people. Nyima Sherlhokangsar, president of the Tibetan Community in Sweden, claimed China was behind the spying efforts, although she admitted herself that the connection was impossible to prove. Björn Jerdén, director of the Asia program at the Institute of International Affairs (UI), noted that the Chinese government is worried about ethnic groups starting what it sees as break-away movements, including those in Tibet, which has been under Chinese rule since 1951.
"Who else would do it? But like I said, we have no evidence for it," Nyima Sherlhokangsar told Sydsvenskan.
However, the problem goes deeper than this. According to international law expert Ove Bring, it is a common phenomenon that foreign countries keep tabs on their current or former citizens in Sweden, which mustn't be underestimated.
"Generally, we can say that the countries engaged in refugee espionage spend extensive resources on this business," Nina Odermalm Schei, the head of SÄPO Press Department, told Swedish national broadcaster SVT.
The phenomenon is far from new, and was first observed already in the 1980s, when people in connection with Saddam Hussein's government in Iraq were said to have mapped their former compatriots in Sweden. In January 2016, the Swedish Migration Board was reported to have hired interpreters faithful to the Eritrean government to handle asylum interviews with fellow Eritreans. Apart from recurrent refugee espionage suspicions, several Eritreans living in exile testified that they had been subjected to extortion by employees of the Eritrean embassy.
Additionally, at least ten foreign diplomats were expelled between 1995 and 2009 for pursuing refugee espionage, according to SÄPO. While embassy staff are covered by diplomatic immunity and cannot be prosecuted in Sweden, the government may expel them as personae non grata or "undesirable persons." However, the Foreign Ministry's basic policy is not to disclose on what grounds foreign diplomatic personnel are expelled and refrain from further commentary about personae non grata.
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