I grew up in a country where we were not allowed to leave/travel to an other country even when we were able to do so – we had the resources and dual nationality.

After two decades I still can't figure out why dictators, like Kim Jong-un for example, ban people from leaving their home countries?

Could it be that a dictator is usually interested in looting the country he rules, and having a smaller population means more natural resources for him and fewer protesters?

  • 11
    Isn't this a post -WW2 "habit"? Except jews, Germans were free (?) to travel during the Nazi regime? And if you look back further, all European countries (and probably most countries in the world) where dictatorships with a king as a dictator, but you where still able to travel mostly free (in Europe your religion might limit your opportunities to travel but that was mostly the destination country posing limits, not your own king preventing you from going abroad).
    – d-b
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 19:15
  • 18
    I don't understand your logic. You question why were people banned from leaving country, and then you bring the hypothesis that the dictator wants smaller population? That doesn't make sense to me at all. Emmigration makes the population smaller.
    – Tomas
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 6:06
  • 21
    @Tomas : It's highly likely it was said ironically. And it actually answers the question. Dictators don't want to cast an image of people fleeing to other countries, as this would be against the propaganda of their country being the best on the planet.
    – vsz
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 6:15
  • 5
    @d-b German jews were free to leave Germany and were very strongly encouraged to do so, but other countries didn't always want them. According to Stefan Zweig, travel restrictions is a post-WW1 "habit". Before WW1, there were no borders or passports checks at all, as only rich people could afford travelling it was by itself enough of a restriction.
    – Bregalad
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 6:44
  • 4
    @BЈовић I don't like to reveal that, sorry.
    – Ulkoma
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 12:12

15 Answers 15


People are resources, dictators (and oppressive regimes in general) don't want them to defect to other countries because they want them working for their regime. Some of them are going to be people that the regime has put their resources into, like scientists and doctors, but even laborers are valuable for actually gathering and assembling the resources the regime needs. Additionally, the regime especially does not want people with access to sensitive information to defect to their enemies. That isn't just spies and soldiers, there are plenty of "regular" government positions that require access to something the regime would not want falling into enemy hands, like economic data that could be used for propaganda. Obviously this is true of any country, and even in democracies with strong human rights records, people with access to classified information are usually required to submit to strict scrutiny of their international travel. Given that they aren't concerned with human rights, dictatorships can take the easier option of restricting travel to any citizens.

However, defection is really a piece of a bigger issue - oppressive regimes maintain their rule in part by controlling information. Here's an interesting article that talks about how dictatorships keep power. Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University, is referenced:

Post said that in both Iraq and North Korea, dictators tightly controlled the flow of information. That control was upended in the past two years during the "Arab spring" revolts that swept away despots in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and some of the Gulf states, revolts that were encouraged in large part by information spread by cell phones and social media.

North Korea is probably the most extreme example of information control (according to Reporters without Borders, they are dead last in Press Freedom in the world), but this can be seen in other oppressive regimes - for example, China attempts to limit access to "wrong" information via its Great Firewall. This is thrown out the window if citizens go somewhere with free media and realize they are being lied to. Traveling can be the cause of their dissension, rather than a symptom.

Known dissidents may also be restricted from traveling so that they can not coordinate with foreign countries or anti-dictatorship organizations, and to prevent them from smuggling contraband or evidence of the regime's misinformation back into the country. Regimes can control the information originating in their country, but once someone is outside their borders the regime cannot control who they speak with.

  • 16
    WRT information control, note that not all dictators restrict travel and/or information. It seems that mostly happens when the dictator's country is markedly worse off, materially, than the outside world, because of the dictator's adherence to some economic theory. IIRC, fairly prosperous countries ruled by dictators - Spain, Chile, Singapore, &c - didn't have nearly as many restrictions.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 16:54
  • 3
    @Nacht atleast spain, did restrict the issue of passports to anyone (that had not been killed) with bonds with democratic or republican ideals, be it a familiar bond ( brother was part of party X) or a friendship bond. The spanish intelligence services & the police force kept a tight grip onto the society, specially those with a republican past, untill well entered the late 60's and early 70's, where the old age of the dictator (died on 1975), the rise of international tourism and the spring 68 french revolts had forced the regime to cede some power.
    – CptEric
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 6:37
  • 3
    @Bregalad Anyone able to work can work willingly or work in the gulag. Children are also a future investment. I would be interested in how different communist dictatorships handled adults that couldn't work or would be old enough to retire in a capitalist country. Commented May 28, 2018 at 11:45
  • 2
    @Bregalad Young minds are easier to <s>brainwash</s> mold into greatness, so they can worship their <s>dictator</s> wonderful supreme leader.
    – Pharap
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 14:45
  • 18
    I grew up in one of those countries (Cuba), and there is an additional reason: arrogance. People leaving the country are in a way defying the authority of "the leader", they are expressing their disagreement with the regime, and they (the regime) take it very personally. Dictators many times seem to really believe they are loved by their victims...
    – yms
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 4:47

I am old enough to have caught the communism era within one Eastern-European country (Romania). Trying to leave the country was a criminal offence and many died trying to do so.

Many people that had to leave the country for business/sport events reasons were typically supervised by Security to ensure that they come back.

A dictator is usually interested in looting the country he rules and having less population means more natural resources for him and less protesters?

Besides natural resources, human resources are also very important:

  • economical power: in order to consolidate power you also need highly qualified workers. Let's consider Kim Jong-un and nuclear weapons: how can he obtain nuclear weapons without lots of scientists?

  • exerting power: Power is a force that needs an object: To have power, a person has to have it over something, or someone. In the case of dictatorship, the object seems to be the entire population, so allowing it to diminish is not an option.

In the specific case of Romania, its last dictator have gone a step further: he banned abortion and virtually all contraceptive methods:

the communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu issued Decree 770, aimed at the creation of a new and large Romanian population by restricting abortion and contraception.

As a side note, similarities between North Korea's regime and the Romanian Communism regime have an explanation:

On July 15, 1971, the president of the newly-renamed Socialist Republic of Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu, visited North Korea He took great interest in the idea of total national transformation as embodied in the programs of the Workers' Party of Korea and China's Cultural Revolution. He was also inspired by the personality cults of China's Mao Zedong and North Korea's Kim Il-sung. Shortly after returning home, he began to emulate North Korea's system, influenced by Kim Il-sung's Juche philosophy. According to the British journalist Edward Behr, Ceaușescu admired both Kim and Mao as leaders because they dominated their nations and broke free from Soviet control, combining totalitarian methods with ultra-nationalist and communist ideologies. Behr wrote that the possibility for "vast Potemkin villages for the hoodwinking of gullible foreign guests" that Ceaușescu had seen in both China and North Korea was something that never seemed to have crossed his mind before.

Upon his return to Romania, Ceausescu began to emulate North Korea's system.

  • 1
    Even here in Portugal that has always been a very moderate and laid back country, state police followed all the movements of Eusébio and he was declared a national asset, out of fear he defected for a better paying foreign team...(Eusébio was a former football legend) Commented May 27, 2018 at 17:25
  • 1
    @RuiFRibeiro - for the few Romanians that were allowed to go outside, things were tougher because the regime also feared they might speak against them. I think the most media channel used was [Radio Liberty]( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Free_Europe/Radio_Liberty).
    – Alexei
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 17:35

An excellent example is the German Democratic Republic.

In the view of the leading socialists they were the worker's paradise and a counterexample to the fascist Germany in the West (that was not really the untruth in the first years because many Nazis survived unscathed). While in the West the Marshall Plan caused a fast recovery of the economy, Soviet reparations (removal of factories) and the change to planned economy caused an economic depression. Finally over a million people were demonstrating against the bad situation at June 17th, 1953 which caused the Soviets to intervene.

After it was clear that the leading socialists were unable/unwilling to react, the people decided with their feet. From 1949 until 1961 2.7 million people left the country, with a population of 18.6 million this was 15%! The land was literally bleeding dry. The GDR first tried to impose laws that people should register before leaving (didn't work), increased the sentences, from money to several years prison if caught (didn't work either) until they finally made the Iron Curtain physical by building a fortress border.

Apart from the economic damage caused by people leaving, it is suppression of cognitive dissonance that triggers preventing people from traveling. That the GDR is not a paradise, but actually a pretty shitty place to live** was unacceptable for the leading politicians. So the border was reframed as "protection" against the western fascists who are trying to infiltrate the peaceful GDR...earnestly despite having all security measures to prevent climbing the wall on the wrong side.

**Just for clarification: Food, Healthcare, Workforce and Education wasn't a problem. East Germans had in fact overall better health than West Germany despite having more severe environmental problems. If you wanted to educate yourself, also no problem. As a planned economy, you had also a guaranteed working place. What the whole thing made insufferable was that the environment was bleak and stifling. Luxuries like coffee or citrus fruits were rare and/or expensive. Every amenity like a car must be petitioned. The best comparison I can come up with was liking going to school for life with know-it-all, overbearing, bad-tempered, respectless teachers and sneaking classmates.

  • "What the whole thing made insufferable was that the environment was bleak and stifling. Luxuries like coffee or citrus fruits were rare and/or expensive." As a side note, it might be worth mentioning that some people seem to find this quite appealing. Several religions actually advertise living as modest and plain as possible, think for example of the buddhistic ideal of Nirvana, the bleakest "place" (or better - state of mind) thinkable, devoid of any desire for luxuries or even amenities.
    – Thern
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 12:39
  • 3
    @Thern Yes, some people. But it is a difference if it is voluntarily or enforced. Even in the USA there are some people who voluntarily prefer an ascetic/spartan lifestyle, e.g. Amish people. Simply having an option has a relaxing effect, even if you don't want to use it now. And the goal of buddhism is not induce craving by forcing people to withhold, it is to understand voluntarily that things don't last, so craving is unreasonable. Commented May 30, 2018 at 13:07
  • 4
    It's not the amenities (or personal desires for them) that make a place a prison or not. The thing about ascetic/spartan lifestyles is that they are a choice. The Amish do not stop anyone from leaving their community. Similarly, I've seen modern prisons that have more amenities and look nicer than some hotels I've been to in my part of the world, such as the stereotype "Club Fed". The difference, of course, is that I can leave the crappy hotel at any time I want. Someone in a Club Fed, however nice, can't. Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:04
  • "The best comparison I can come up with was liking going to school for life" Guaranteed place to sleep, government-provided healthcare, plenty of educational opportunities, but no luxuries and you can't leave? Sounds like prison. Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 15:32

An example from Romania:

Before the fall of socialism, it was very difficult to travel into capitalist countries. It was not completely impossible, but very difficult, so it was practically impossible for the majority of the population. There was an old lady we knew, who managed to get an approval to travel to the USA, because she had close relatives there (otherwise she would have had absolutely no chance). This was a huge curiosity, as none of us knew anyone who traveled to the USA, or knew anyone who knew someone else who has been to the USA.

So, after she returned, a lot of people asked her about her trip. She told only negative things, how hard is the life there, how oppressed the people are, that the American prosperity is just a big propaganda as most of the population is starving, and so on.

Only after Ceaușescu's dictatorship ended, did she tell the truth: after she returned, she was threatened by the secret police and was instructed what she must say about America.

As such travelers were rare, this image could be held up. Had there been many more travelers, the truth would have probably been found out.

  • 2
    Good example, I have experienced something similar
    – Ulkoma
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 14:21

Many answer focus on resources (people and the money/products they can generate) and blocking of outside information (preventing people having other comparatives or being able to compare their country with others).

One answer mentioned **cognitive disonnance*", and I want to take that as a starting point.

I grew up in the era of the Soviet Union. Many people wanted to leave, but weren't allowed, even if their social contribution as resource producers was minor or impeded. For example, even old Jews who wanted to leave and go to Israel, were refused (known as "Refuseniks"), and often lost their jobs, or got demoted to meagre janitorial work, or were imprisoned. On the face of it, that contradicts much of the argument above. They included old people who couldn't produce much, but also included famous professors who were jailed or prevented from working as academics or in industry, despite being highly skilled in areas valuable to the USSR. Nor was it specifically antisemitism at work - the USSR was atheist rather than specifically antisemitic. At best the actions taken lost the country resources and cost them significantly. There was no gain in production or other ways. So why did they take these extra actions?

One answer is that a dictatorial state is to an extent, usually also a paranoid state. People are watched, the state has huge rights (legal or otherwise) of intrusion, jailing, trumped up charges, and spies on its citizens, "wrong thinking" or "wrong actions" are serious crimes, and so on.

In other words, trust (and more exactly lack of trust) is a huge issue playing out in many ways in such a society. A solo dictator worries who might conspire or get power; countries in the USSR worried about who was a trustworthy citizen. "Antisocial activity" crimes existed, which cover many things that pretty much all come down to criminalising the fact that one "might raise questions or mean the person can't be relied on to faithfully comply with the official line/approach/thinking", in someone's perception.

This is a trait visible in many dictatorships - North Korea assassinated a possible threat (family member) recently; China imprisons human rights lawyers and activists; even in Russia, people often look to Putin to check whether their position is "acceptable".

Limiting what people can think, and do, and making sure nobody feels safe, is also a common way to ensure people create a social norm in which anyone with a question keeps it mainly to themselves and therefore society becomes an echo chamber where all a person hears around them are people talking in ways that reflect/reinforce the lines set by the dictatorship. (This is the "cognitive dissonance" element mentioned preciously).

This link in today's news gives a bit more of an idea of the repercussions that dictatorships can and do wield if it wishes (death, family members, hard labour, sudden disappearance, that 'good' citizens inform on dissenters and [implied and often actually] those expressing nonstandard views, ...). Although the issue covered in that article is criticism of the leader, you can imagine the undercurrent of distrust, fear for safety, citizen monitoring etc that is implied for the whole dictator's society, and what most ordinary citizens will think about taking actions that could make them "stand out" or might be questioned in a critical light. This general approach (a fearful/distrusting state and citizenry + repercussions for perceived risk/questionable conduct) is typical for authoritarian/totalitarian dictatorships - for example 1970s Chile, 1930s/40s Germany, Soviet Union and former Soviet republics, China (esp. Cultural Revolution), to name just a handful of many.

So coming back to the OP, consider a person who wants to travel.

In a democracy, one might ask "can they afford to" and "do they have a right". A dictatorship starts from a perspective "is this a threat?" (probably!), or even more strongly, "is there any way this could be a threat?". This person wants to travel. Why? Do we trust them to do so, even to the extent of areas we don't control and don't have insiders/spies/informants? No? Then immediately, no travel for you. Do we want to bring them into the equivalent of the police/FBI to have a chat, and probe in depth their motives and what might be up? Shall we check all their relatives and work place records to see if there might be a reason for doubt, or something going on we've overlooked? Or shall we just decide this is enough of a sign of non-typical mindset that we should remove their job and send them to a prison camp, to ensure any disruption they might cause in future, and anyone they might come into contact with, isn't harmed (from the dictatorship perspective) by their lack of orthodoxy and departure from norms. And so on.

In that environment, few would wish to raise their head and be scrutinised, or seem to be "out of line" in any way. So few ask. Instead travel becomes a mark of a person who has a blatantly obvious good reason, and who is allowed to travel because of the benefit it brings the country.


Because by travelling people extend their horizons. By travelling your experience becomes less limited to what you know from your daily life. Even nowadays you can see the example: intolerance towards different people is result of limited perspectives, and people who travel are much less prone to this. They are also less affected by information from media and propaganda. In communism era, there was a lot of propaganda that was complete bullshit. By travelling, people would immediatelly see through it. They would become aware of the oppression. They would also see all the amazing things the western economy provided and that would make them unhappy and more likely to protest (this was also one of the reasons of the 1989 revolution - the economy regulations were unsustainable). By extending their horizons, they would generally become unhappy about the situation. The revolutionary forces would become stronger, which would lead to earlier revolution. The key to success of these regimes is to keep people in lie and false propaganda and false sense that our country is the best place to live for as long as it is possible.

That's for travelling. Another thing is the emmigration. I personally do not much understand why they were so strict about this, people who emmigrate (and do not return) would have at that time much less influence on the regime (remember, those were times without the Internet). But perhaps again, these people staying in touch with their friends and families who stayed there could undermine the picture of perfect country.

Whatever they tried to ban, it didn't work anyway. At least in Czechoslovakia. My uncle, who is a scientist, emmigrated. He went on the organized tour to Turkey and then he escaped, with very little USD (it was illegal to have/trade western currencies). With the help of US embassy in Instanbul, he was safe and under protection. He ended up in refugees camp, and after nine very tough months he finally got to the US. It was tough but he made it. So, there were ways to do it, if you really wanted to.

  • 7
    @Bregalad that's not true at all! For example, people from Czechoslovakia could freely travel to Hungary, Poland, Eastern Germany, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Soviet Union etc. You evidently have not experienced the situation right? Where are you from?
    – Tomas
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 7:20
  • 2
    @Tomas is correct. It wasn't unusual for people who wanted to flee from East-Germany to West-Germany to do so by traveling to less fortified states of the eastern block. One common route was through Bulgaria and crossing the border to Greece. It was a quite long route, but the Bulgarian-Greece border was the least fortified section of the iron curtain, so it was the safest way to do it.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 8:20
  • 2
    @Bregalad - The situation had changed over the years. In the beginning years it was indeed much harder to travel, but from '60-'70s it was much, much easier and even middle class people could spend their holidays in COMECON countries. This is what I remember from my relatives stories.
    – Antek
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 11:52
  • 1
    Depopulation is a real concern
    – user9790
    Commented May 29, 2018 at 21:18
  • 2
    If you allow people to freely leave, then you have the problem of dealing with the people remaining starting to wonder why all those people were leaving in the first place. If the West was such a moral wasteland with the hordes of starving underclass being persecuted by the elitist rich, certainly a hellhole compared to the Glorious Socialist Workers Paradise as the State propaganda insisted, then why were people going there? More importantly, why weren't they lining up to come back once they got a taste of the horrors of life there? Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:13

When people can go to another country, there is the probability that they will see better systems of government, and when they return, will begin to spread dissent. When people can't go anywhere, like North Koreans today, the only information they have is what the government disseminates through its propaganda machines. Those always tell the people how great they have it at home, and how horrible things are elsewhere. When people have no access to the truth, government propaganda is what they believe. When they can travel, they will learn the truth. Dictators fear that more than anything else. A truly informed population is impossible to control.


Their primary goal is to avoid the loss of resources. People is a resource, not only in dictatorships, but everywhere. The main problem is that exactly those people will leave first, who are worthy for the foreign countries, and thus they would find job easily.

Their secondary goal is to avoid the injection of - for them - unwanted ideologies ("see, Joe, our neighbors in China are free to see the American films!").

  • Not always. A dictatorship can make the educated more well paid so they become part of the upper classes. Commented May 30, 2018 at 21:05
  • Nope. That would mean meritocracy, a feature of capitalism. If what worthy here means something capitalists are willing to pay for that means those most valuable to capitalists are the one leaving first
    – user4951
    Commented Oct 19, 2018 at 21:15
  • @mathreadler Sorry for the later answer. I think you are right, except that most dictatorships don't do that in practice. What they do in practice, is that the access to higher education is a privilege of the children of the ruling class.
    – Gray Sheep
    Commented Feb 28, 2020 at 23:51
  • @user4951 Nope. Not at all meritocracy. Not even close. Carefully casted pecking order hierarchy. Commented Feb 29, 2020 at 5:41

In addition to the excellent answers by Thorsten and Alexei, there were a couple of other factors:

  1. While many answers noted that "people are resource" (extra kudos to those geopolitically aware that populace size directly corresponds to army size and thus to military power in many dictatorships without US-model professional army), none of the answers noted the second half of the "human resource" graph.

    More specifically, the people who emigrate from a dictatorship are more likely to be the most productive/best ones - most courageous, most entrepreneurial, most innovative, best brains (there's a reason emigration from former Warsaw Pact countries once emigration was possible was called "brain drain").

    Notably, such people are not only the most likely to rise up to the challenge of emigration, they are also far more likely to be dissatisfied with living under dictatorship and thus want to emigrate.

    In other words, while a dictator may be unhappy that alcoholic collective farmer Uncle Vanya may skip the paradise for all the reasons listed in other answers, that dictator is far more concerned with a high-IQ, high-productivity professional/intellectual getting out of Dodge City, as they are far more contributive to the country's well-being objectively.

  2. As a separate concern, noted in other answers, many dictatorships are also concerned with prestige - either on a cult of personality level as dictators, and/or, on ideological battleground level.

    If someone skips the country, that means the country isn't the socialist Paradize they make it out to be, in the eyes of the rest of the world. Especially if it is a large number of someones.

    Additionally, if someone skips the country, they are a source of embarrassing information about your dictatorship, either as an eyewitness, or, as material evidence (see tapeworms found in a recent North Korea defectors, he didn't have to say anything to horrify most of the world).

    Both of those factors prove embarrassing both for the dictator as a ruler, AND for their ideological system.

  3. As a smaller but still important factor, there are considerations of State Secrets and foreign contacts.

    Legitimately or not, many dictatorships consider many things to be State Secrets. Anyone complaining about how US government makes things Top Secret that shouldn't ever be, just doesn't understand the enormous levels of magnitude larger problem of this nature in a socialist dictatorship (the reasons for that are irrelevant to this question).

    As such, a very large number of population was holders of "state secrets" - especially those who worked in military-industrial complex.

    There was a great fear of them betraying those secrets to nefarious foreigners, by accident, or subterfuge by agents, or conscious betrayal. Preventing people from travel abroad achieved the goal of preventing that very effectively.

  • "More specifically, the people who emigrate from a dictatorship are more likely to be the most productive/best ones" - This is an interesting point, because especially in the light of the current refugee crisis in Europe, it is permanently repeated that it is NOT the best people who are fleeing, but often the bottom line. One of Donald Trumps main slogans in the election cycle was that the Middle and South Americans coming to the US were the worst of their societies, and although Mexico and several other Middle/South American states are no dictatorships, they are quite dysfunctional countries.
    – Thern
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 13:50
  • "More specifically, the people who emigrate from a dictatorship are more likely to be the most productive/best ones", an interesting point indeed, but is it true? Perhaps the most productive/best ones are accepted into the ruling class (nomenklatura or otherwise), or otherwise sufficiently satisfied with their position to not wish to emigrate/defect, as opposed to desperate people who may have nothing to lose. Consider that UK visas are easier to get for successful people with strong bonds to their home country: clearly UK believes those are less likely to clandestinely immigrate.
    – gerrit
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 14:19
  • @gerrit - (2) The UK visa thing is because it benefits UK to welcome the elite.
    – user4012
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 14:58
  • @Thern - yes, that's one of the big concerns with modern immigration. "give us your tired, your poor" worked well in early USA that experienced dearth of population (citation: Sid Meyer's "Colonization" game as a model :) but that model's assumptions and therefore conclusions are no longer true in 21st century First World countries.
    – user4012
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 15:07
  • @user4012 And it was in fact never true. The "law" that primarily the best ones would leave dictatorships is wrong except for some very specific cases where governments shut down the borders and only a very small amount of defectors with good international contacts could escape. From the barbarian invasions in the late ancient world to the European emigrants to the US in the 19th century up to modern emigration, it was always a cross section of the population that migrated.
    – Thern
    Commented May 30, 2018 at 15:20

Natural resources are far from the only or main source of wealth and power, especially for North Korea or, back in the day, COMECON countries. People (especially working age people) are needed to sustain economic activity or an army. Interestingly, some authoritarian countries did let older people out more easily (East Germany for example), which supports this interpretation.

That also goes some way toward explaining why some African or Middle-Eastern countries that are just as authoritarian but resource-rich seem to care a lot less about emigration (I am thinking Saudi Arabia or Gabon for example) than resource-poor countries like North Korea.

Interestingly, many democratic countries have identified emigration or “brain-drain“ as an issue and try to fight it (with scholarships that require working in-country for a number of years, cash benefits for qualified workers who decide to stay, etc.) This suggests a slightly different perspective: Most countries have an interest in preventing people from leaving in large numbers but broad restrictions on emigration are unacceptable in all but the most authoritarian regimes (almost by definition) and richer countries don't have to worry about it too much in practice.

Finally, in the specific case of North Korea, there is also the complex relationship with China: North Korea does depend on China quite a bit and China is not keen on a refugee crisis at its doorstep. So both of them have a common interest in making sure people stay inside North Korea and China is ready to prop the country up as long as it prevents mass emigration.


Well, they need to prevent unwanted communication, which is harder to track and control outside the system.

They need to prevent reality check: television, and even internet nowadays, are not enough, and most likely are controlled in that kind of country.

Manipulation with your existence(and of your loved ones) and fear together with gratefulness for 'everything that dictator is doing for you' are 'the winning formula'.

If you are outside the system you can become objective, and you become seed of potential rebellion.


Travel restrictions are a measure of control.

They can be used in different forms and to different ends.

Human resources

As many have pointed out, a dictator wants to keep his human resources inside the country and direct them as he sees fit. They cannot decide to work for the competition aka another country if they cannot leave their country.


Sometimes it's simply a matter of ideology. If a dictator is, for instance, nationalist, his ideology might imply that his people would never want to leave (or shouldn't and they might get that taught first). A nationalist world view might include the sentiment that people are born in a country, they belong to that country, for them this is their home. Why would they (permanently) leave? So the natural state would be for them to stay, anything else - without good reason in the national interest - would be suspicious.

Limiting the ability of an opposition to collaborate

A dictator typically wants to control his country and most particularly, he wants to ensure no one is scheming against him. A few isolated rebels are easy to deal with, if they collaborate and incite an uprising that's where real trouble starts. If they get enough little ships and the ones with the plans can meet the ones with the attack ships,, who knows, they might blow up your nice little Death Star.

That's why curfews are also a popular measure in authoritarian environments. As someone in power with relevant opposition you want to make sure that your enemies cannot connect and combine their efforts against you. This holds for receiving help/incitement from external "friends" as well as for other opposition figures within the country. So, often travel isn't restricted solely at the national borders but inside the country as well.

For instance, no fly lists can affect your internal travel. You can have checkpoints inside your country or require special travel permits to travel from region to region. More subtly you may simply ensure (long distance) traveling is expensive or only possible via state organisations where you can control who travels or at least observe people traveling and thus easier follow them and identify their allies.

With a curfew as one of the most extreme restrictions, you can even limit local collaboration - having people work during the day and locked away in their houses at the night.

Selective Application

As some people noted travel restrictions aren't always the case or not for everyone. This depends much on whom you consider an internal enemy. If a dictator assumes the populace mostly is on his side, and there are just some pesky villains, e.g. communists, liberals, democrats, any ethnic minority, that he considers potential enemies, he may try to only affect those minorities with any travel restrictions. So his supporters do not feel negatively affected by his rule and keep supporting him. If done well, they don't even consider him a dictator.


Lastly, travel restrictions can also be punitive measures (or that can be a component). Instead of killing someone (and make him a martyr) you can simply confine him to his house, whenever he does not behave, e.g. gives a speech at an opposition rally. Similarly, if a country is racist / fixated on a minority, maybe the local population from an "arch enemy" country/ethnic, a dictator can use travel restrictions and other measures to visibly treat these groups worse than his supporters. Thus maybe satisfying his own desires to hurt the group and to suppress it, but also playing at the hate of his supporters, to ensure their loyalty in their common "struggle" against this "evil" group of "outsiders".


The other way around, allowing people to travel can be a gift that a dictator/government can grant without incurring monetary cost to reward loyal citizens. As example, in the GDR it was pretty hard to get a car, party membership likely helped in getting one or getting a permit to visit the west. China is currently limiting travel for to HongKong and other sought after travel destinations and even experiments with social network feedback as a measure for such privileges[1].

Travel limitations in non-dictatorial countries

Note that some of those measures are used to a varying degree by democratic/"free" countries as well (no-fly list against suspected terrorists, travel restrictions for convicted criminals, football hooligans etc.).

1 - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/24/chinas-social-credit-system-bans-millions-travelling/


While I completely agree with the other two answers, I believe that they are missing an important part of the equation. I will try to expand upon it here. I also want to apologize that my answer will probably be poorly cited, but unfortunately I do not have the time for much research right now.

Whenever one thinks about the decisions a dictator, it is important to remember that the survival of a dictatorship depends on the inability of the population to overthrow it. It is here that we have to remember the rather dark but very important truth that will drive the rest of this answer: Well-educated, well-fed, well-organized people make better revolutionaries than starving, uneducated, overworked laborers.

Because of this, I'd like to (somewhat) challenge the premise of your question. While it is true that some citizens of a dictatorship have the resources to travel (more about this in a second), a dictatorship in which most citizens can afford to travel has probably already ensured it's own downfall for the very simple reason that money that can be used to travel is also money that can be used to overthrow the government. North Korea is an excellent example here- Annual income in North Korea is ~$1700, or barely enough to survive. Even if North Korean citizens were permitted to leave, none of them would as saving up that much money would almost certainly ensure their own and their family's starvation.

Now of course this isn't universally true. Even the most effective dictatorships have some relatively rich citizens. So what about them? Well, this is where I want to reiterate some of what @IllusiveBrian said. Allowing people to leave and then come back is a great way to spread revolutionary ideas about equality, freedom, and democracy in your otherwise peacefully ruled dictatorship. I would expand further, but it's really best if you just read his answer.

Finally, I want to bring up something that you didn't ask in your question but is also very relevant. People in dictatorships are typically not only banned from leaving, but people outside the dictatorship are frequently also banned from entering. One explanation for this phenomenon is the same as in the paragraph above and in IllusiveBrian's answer- people from democratic countries will spread democratic ideas in an otherwise orderly and obedient population. But this is not the only reason. It is also important to remember that while dictatorships certainly face the danger of an internal revolution, they also face the danger of an external overthrow by democratic governments that care about the rights and liberties of the dictatorship's citizens. Allowing other countries' journalists, celebrities, and politicians into your borders is a great way to get the influential citizens of democratic nations to push for humanitarian changes in your country that are sure to lead to the overthrow of you, the dictator. We saw that even a fictional account, created for comedic purposes, of journalists entering North Korea stirred up a huge wave of conversation about the human rights situation in that country- imagine the potential of a non-fictional documentary based on real footage of actually starving children.

Edit in response to jamesqf's comment: Some dictators are indeed loved by their people. Their people are have rights and are generally happy during the dictator's reign. However, no dictator lives forever. Eventually, he will die, and he will be forced to appoint a successor. And for all the honor and intelligence the original dictator might have, his successor might be entirely incompetent and unqualified. And when the drive for a revolution inevitably comes, not only will the dictator be likely to lose the war that follows, but even before the war the ministers, generals, and high-level bureaucrats of the nation will be forced to choose either the side of the failing dictator or the side of the well-fed, well-organized, well-educated masses.

  • (-1) The last paragraph is pure fantasy. North Korea, COMECON countries, all tried to attract tourists, if only as a source of currency.
    – Relaxed
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 21:56
  • @Relaxed you're probably right, this is what happens when I don't have time to do research. I will remove and/or rephrase the last paragraph to accommodate that. However, could I get a source on your claim? Commented May 27, 2018 at 22:09
  • 4
    I disagree with the second paragraph. A dictatorship can survive if the people don't want to overthrow it. If people under a dictatorship are prosperous, and the majority enjoy reasonable personal freedom, then most won't really care about the form of the government. Perhaps the classic example was Hitler: had he not decided to start a two-front war, he'd probably have died in bed, beloved by the German people - or at leat the parts who weren't the scapegoated minorities.
    – jamesqf
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 5:09
  • @jamesqf I have edited my answer with a response to your comment. Commented May 28, 2018 at 5:57
  • 2
    @Bregalad because educated, well-fed people don't like not having the right to leave a country (in addition to various other rights they don't have). It's important to remember that economic prosperity does not equate to a happy citizenry. Commented May 28, 2018 at 7:41

Other answers address the specific mechanics of dictatorial carrots and sticks. This answer is perhaps a bit more obvious...

Dictators ban emigration for the same reasons sadists tie people up, or courts lock people in jail, or compulsory schooling keeps children indoors for a decade. All hope to convert or pervert their captives to worship various local facts and idols, and if appreciation comes too slowly, to instill a state of resignation, submission, or fear. All wage violent war against contempt and irreverence, making soldiers of their good captives paid in conditional privileges.

There can't be alternatives. Dictators dramatize the outside world as different kinds of earthly hells, the horrors of which they "save" their citizens from experiencing, and the mythical dangers of which justify a dictator's extraordinary powers. If citizens saw the world was not as perilous as supposed, they'd be less willing to put up with abuse.


As you mentioned GDR here, I can say that I happened to live there for several years. And (just realized it - such a curious coincidence) today is exactly 29 years since we have left GDR forever, it happened 28.05.1989. My father served in the Soviet Air Force and was sent to one well-known GDR airbase, so I was little enough those days. Best time of the childhood, I have to admit with nostalgia.

And, according my memories, it was not so bad in GDR as it is used to consider. Despite planned economy and fixed prices, there were no deficit (unlike USSR ) , shelves in the shops were as full as they are nowadays and there were no problem to get anything.

Family members of USSR military members who served there used to make the "raids" to local shops in order to sweep out the things, which were subject of shortage in USSR - for own usage and in order to resell it there.

I do not really know if locals were happy with their lifestyle, and do not know if they really massively wanted to get over Berlin wall as propaganda used to state. I think that more no rather than yes, most probably one-off dissidents wanted but other people were happy with their life there. At least now they are not very happy after they have joined Western Germany, because recession came to these places as like to USSR after its collapse.

I also don't know if they hated us ("occupants") - probably yes, we caught sometimes hostile glances but they behaved friendly at least.

This is the similar like western propaganda used to state that Soviets were encouraging USSR collapse and so-called "market reforms" in early 1990s but it is mostly false, this I can confirm as having seen that with own eyes, most of people were happy in USSR and wanted it to survive, but some people cursed communists and wanted "better life" of course.

Regarding restrictions of travelling to other countries - I do not know how it was for GDR locals, but for Soviets it was really an issue. Almost impossible in other worlds. It was a big luck (as a rule deserved in a competition with other "wannabies") to be sent abroad, and mostly military people could achieve it (for civilians it was much harder). But after returning even from GDR you could show off that you were lucky to get abroad - it was really cool. Of course, many approvals from government authorities, KGB etc were needed to get such "happiness", but I don't remember details since was little enough.

Of course, it is even out of discussion that USSR people could not just buy a ticket (or a tour) and get abroad without special purpose and authorities approval - it was completely impossible.

  • 4
    Your childhood memories are interesting, but they don't really answer the question: "Why do dictators ban their people from traveling?". Please note that we expect all answers on this website to answer the question, nothing more and nothing less.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 14:31
  • Regarding this I agree with previous posters, the less people know what is going on out of the border the easier to inspire them that it is hell there and paradise here. That is the reason and this is one of major mistakes that led USSR to collapse. On the contrary the more you restricted to have a glance over the fence the more you are interested to look what is there, and some information will leak anyway. No wonder that rumours about the "decaying West" (common term of Soviet propaganda) turn to the opposite effect - many Soviets secretely started to admire the West.
    – I J
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 14:44
  • Just the facts, please. With references.
    – Chloe
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 19:54
  • 1
    @Chloe, while I agree that the post doesn't fully answer the question, it does state facts with references. The person is describing their personal experience. As long as they are not lying, these are facts. And, as a 1st hand witness of the situation, they serve as a reference.
    – grovkin
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 21:05
  • 1
    The problem with 1st hand account of childhood experiences is that they may not provide enough perspective about overall situation. As a member of the Soviet Air Force, your father was a member of the elite. So your personal experiences were too far removed from those of average Soviet Citizens. All officers of the Soviet armed forces were part of the military class, which enjoyed higher privileges than average citizens. This is the kind of perspective that, as a child looking from the inside of this protected environment, you may not have picked up on.
    – grovkin
    Commented May 28, 2018 at 21:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .