Johannesburg — The Angolan government should immediately suspend the deportation of migrants and some refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and conduct a prompt and impartial investigation into alleged abuses by state security forces. Over 400,000 people were forcibly returned or fled Angola during October 2018 following an operation targeting illegal diamond mining in Angola's Lunda Norte province.
According to the United Nations, Angolan security forces and allied ethnic Tshokwe youth shot dead at least six Congolese during the operation in Lunda North province bordering Congo. The actual figure is most likely higher. Many of the migrants and refugees who crossed the border into Congo accused Angolan security forces of beatings, sexual assault, burning down homes, looting and destruction of property, illegal taxation, arbitrary detention, and other abuses, said witnesses, humanitarian agencies, and media reports. They also described a climate of fear and intimidation in Lunda Norte.
"Angola should stop forcing people to leave the country until it can provide individual assessment and due process guarantees to distinguish irregular migrants from refugees and registered migrant workers," said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Any deportations of migrants should be in accordance with international law and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights."
The so-called "Operation Transparency" aims to reduce diamond smuggling and reform the world's fifth-largest diamond industry, Angolan authorities said in a statement. It is part of President João Lourenço's drive to diversify the economy and reduce the country's dependency on oil. Angolan authorities say that smuggling and illegal mining are organized and controlled by irregular migrants, but have produced no evidence to back up this claim. Many of those expelled contend that they were in the country legally.
"Angolan soldiers forced us to leave with just our clothes," a 40-year-old Congolese diamond digger and father of two told Human Rights Watch over the phone. "I showed them my Angolan residency document, but they tore it apart. Then they forced us onto trucks and we were driven to the border with Congo. Before we were forced to leave, youth from the Tshokwe community attacked the Congolese in our town with machetes and looted our homes."
On October 26, the United Nations human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, warned that the forcible mass expulsions left returnees in an "extremely precarious situation." The UN children's fund UNICEF, says that more than 80,000 children forcibly returned from Angola to Congo are in urgent need of assistance. The situation risks deteriorating further in the coming weeks, with many of the people returning to Congo facing malnutrition, while humanitarian funding from aid agencies remains low.
Most of the people deported have ended up in Kasai, Kasai Central, and Kwanga provinces. Many don't have the means to return to their places of origin. The mass arrival of hundreds of thousands of Congolese could further destabilize southern Congo, with national elections scheduled for December 23.
Between August 2016 and September 2017, violence involving Congolese security forces, government-backed militias, and local armed groups left up to 5,000 people dead in the region. Six hundred schools were attacked or destroyed, and 1.4 million people were displaced from their homes, including more than 30,000 refugees who fled to Angola. Nearly 90 mass graves were discovered in the region.
Angola's deportation of refugees violates its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1969 African Refugee Convention, under the principle of nonrefoulment, which prohibits the forced return of refugees to a place where they would face a real risk of persecution, torture or other ill-treatment, or a threat to life.
On October 27, the spokesperson for "Operation Transparency," Police Commissioner António Bernardo, announced that over 400,000 foreigners of various nationalities, who were allegedly living in Angola illegally, had "voluntarily" left the country since September 25, when the operation began. Bernardo also claimed that police had seized large quantities of diamonds and other precious stones, and that numerous illegal diamond shops were shut down. Authorities have since announced that the operation will be extended to other provinces.
The Angolan government has denied that its security forces committed human rights abuses against migrants during Operation Transparency. Interior Minister Angelo da Veiga Tavares said on October 18 that the allegations are part of a "Campaign" carried out by people of bad faith against Angola. However, the Angolan ambassador to Congo, José João Manuel, said his government is willing to investigate the allegations.
Angolan security forces have repeatedly expelled Congolese and committed abuses against migrants over the years. In 2012, Human Rights Watch documented that gang rape and sexual exploitation of women and girls, beatings, degrading and inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrests, and denial of due process were common practices during roundups of undocumented migrants and while they were in custody before their deportation. "The fact that many of these abuses are continuing years after the allegations began is a clear sign that the Angolan government has failed in its duty to protect migrants and refugees," Mavhinga said. "The authorities should immediately investigate the allegations of abuse by state security forces and prosecute those responsible."