In November 2010, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that more than 650 women and girls had been raped during mass expulsions of undocumented immigrants from Angola to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Approximately 6,621 Congolese returnees arrived in the Western Kasai province of the DRC in two waves in September and October 2010. The reports of sexual violence are based on evidence collected by NGO welcome committees in the region. Many of the victims reported being locked up in derelict buildings, gang-raped, and tortured by Angolan security forces and then forced to walk several days back across the border into the DRC. Although the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has confirmed the reports of sexual violence in the region, neither UNICEF nor OCHA has publicly confirmed in which country the sexual violence took place.
To date, neither Angola nor the DRC has investigated these allegations. In response to press inquiries, the DRC information minister said that his government has not received any complaints and does not want “to launch a dossier,” dismissing the possibility of any further investigation. Angola’s ambassador to Kinshasa said that his government has been conducting ongoing expulsions of undocumented Congolese immigrants, but added that the authorities in the DRC are always notified about the expulsions. Despite reports of abuses, Angolan authorities have not ceased expulsions. Recently, OCHA reported that Angola expelled a further 1,350 Congolese citizens during a two-week period at the end of December 2010.
While the recent reports of sexual violence against Congolese returnees have received substantial media coverage, these abuses are part of an ongoing cycle of forced expulsions of undocumented immigrants from both Angola and the DRC that have received scant international attention in recent years. Over the past decade, since the collapse of diamond minds in the southern DRC provinces of Bandundu and Western Kasai, an increasing number of Congolese citizens have crossed the border into Angola in search of better economic livelihoods. Others have crossed the border into Angola to escape ongoing war, violence, and instability in the DRC. In response, the Angolan government forcibly expelled between 300,000 and 400,000 Congolese citizens from the Lunda Norte region in Angola between 2003 and 2009.
In 2004, the Angolan government began Operation Brillante which sought to expel garimpeiros, undocumented foreign workers in Angola’s informal diamond mining industry. The vast majority of garimpeiros are Congolese. Operation Brillante led to the expulsion of a recorded 80,000 Congolese from Angola. In May 2009, the Angolan government began Operation Crisis, which entailed the expulsion of 160,000 garimpeiros to the DRC, with 18,000 individuals expelled in one 37-day period. In response to these ongoing operations, the DRC forcibly expelled an estimated 51,000 Angolans from within its borders in 2009, in what the media has described as a “tit-for-tat expulsion.”
Many of the Angolans expelled were refugees from Angola’s 1975-2002 civil war and had been living in the DRC for many years. In October 2009, Angola and the DRC agreed upon protocols to suspend expulsions and to conduct consultations before any further deportations of foreign nationals. But the most recently reported expulsions demonstrate Angola’s complete lack of compliance with the terms of this agreement.
Several humanitarian organizations, including Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), have documented a systematic pattern of state-sponsored sexual abuse and torture by the Angolan armed forces during these expulsions. MSF and OCHA also report that many returnees are forced to walk several days across the border and are suffering from dehydration, malnutrition, sleep deprivation, malaria, and HIV-related diseases upon their arrival in the DRC. Furthermore, many humanitarian groups report a widespread practice of public strip searches and unsterile body cavity searches for illegal diamonds by Angolan soldiers.
While the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for the DRC has developed an emergency response plan to address the needs of those recently expelled, previous experience indicates such institutional responses will have limited effect. Angola has consistently denied NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and UN organizations access to detention and deportation sites. While other organizations such as MSF and the International Committee of the Red Cross have had more success offering basic assistance to expellees through local networks in both Angola and the DRC, organizations such as the International Organization for Migration have reportedly been unable to secure adequate funding to assist those in need.
OCHA does not dispute the legality of Angola’s expulsions, but has called on the governments of both Angola and the DRC to ensure that any future deportations are carried out in an organized and orderly manner to prevent further humanitarian suffering. Similarly, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees called upon both governments to take necessary measures to protect expellees in accordance with international human rights, humanitarian, and refugee law. Both Angola and DRC have ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Convention on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights. In addition to the rights of liberty and security of the person, freedom from arbitrary detention, and freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment enshrined in the international conventions, the actions of both Angola and the DRC violate Article 12(4) and 12(5) of the African Charter. In 1996, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled in a communication against Angola that these two provisions, when read together, prohibit states from carrying out mass expulsions of non-nationals based on nationality, race, ethnicity, or religion without providing individuals the opportunity for a legal hearing. Accordingly, those expelled may well have recourse before the African Commission. But without increased international pressure and additional funding, it is unlikely that either the humanitarian or legal responses to recent expulsions will be an improvement on the lackluster and ineffectual responses of the past.