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Why were 400,000 Congolese nationals expelled from Angola?

A potential human rights crisis is playing itself out between Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Over 400,000 Congolese citizens have been repatriated since late September 2018, under less than transparent conditions. The international media and relief agencies have expressed their concerns over possible human rights violations. There has been a dearth of analysis from within Africa on what these latest developments mean for both Angola and the DRC. Lia Marx has delved into the situation.

On 25 September 2018, the government of Angola announced the launch of “Operation Transparency”. The operation is an initiative to crack down on illegal diamond mining, particularly in Angola’s diamond-rich area of Lunda Norte. The prevailing narrative in the Angolan media is that this unlawful activity was mostly carried out by Congolese citizens living illegally in Angola.

By the end of October, Angolan media had reported on the purported successes of the operation. Over 30,000 illegal stones worth one million dollars were seized together with equipment and vehicles that facilitated this trade. In addition to this, the local authorities announced that 380,000 Congolese people had “voluntarily” agreed to return to the DRC.

A few sub-Saharan African sources picked up on the story but mostly carrying rehosted reporting from the state-controlled Angolan press and international news agencies, AFP and Reuters. A handful of media houses in Zambia and Kenya published short factual reports focused mostly on Luanda’s response, after it came under fire from the international media, following allegations of human rights abuses.

There were also a few stories from international media houses, Reuters, AFP and Deutsche Welle reporting violence by Angolan authorities or migration-related claims by DRC citizens.  These said that they had been living legally in Angola, as migrants or refugees, but had their papers torn up and forcibly dumped over the border.

The Angolan government is within its right to crack down on illegal activities taking place inside its borders. It is odd though that no one has questioned the sudden deportation. Is it possible that nearly half a million people are illegally mining for diamonds? Is there a link between the 400,000 people that have now been sent back to the DRC and the 80,000 refugees who fled into Angola following an outbreak of political and ethnic violence in the DRC in 2017.

It could also be that this has something to do with the new migration policy.

In late September 2018, Luanda approved legislation seeking to control the flow of migrants into Angola. More, it is now preparing legislation stipulating that migrants should not account for more than 2.5% of the total population of Angola.  Could it be that “Operation Transparency” is simply a ploy to rid Angola of unwanted migrants?

Far more importantly it is anyone’s guess what kind of humanitarian crisis may play out as large numbers of DRC citizens find themselves on the other side of the border without access to resources. In addition, the country continues to be plagued by political strife and is on the verge of elections this December.

Adult students in a refugee camp in Lunda Norte, Angola // Jesuit Refugee Service, Tim Smith
Adult students attend school in a refugee camp in Lunda Norte, Angola // Jesuit Refugee Service, Tim Smith

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has already warned that the influx of people into the “already fragile Kasai”  region could trigger a humanitarian crisis. They have called on the governments of the two countries to work together to ensure that any population flows occur in an orderly manner, respecting the human rights of those affected.

President Joseph Kabila has played this situation in his favour. He knows that he cannot run again but he certainly wants to ensure that his handpicked candidate, Emmanuel Shadary, wins the election.

Kabila has criticised Angola in very strong terms accusing it of human rights abuses. At the same time he has promised that Kinshasa will do everything it can to assist its displaced citizens.

The DRC reaction also points to a deterioration in the oft cool relations between Kinshasa and Luanda. This despite a promise by the new Angolan president, João Lourenço, in 2017 that the DRC would be a key foreign policy concern for his administration.

What will happen if help does not come quickly enough — or doesn’t come at all?

Already the border towns have said that they cannot deal with the influx of people who have temporarily set up camp in villages like Kamako. Many have nothing to return to because their homes were destroyed in last year’s tensions in Kasai.

How long will it be before these people with nowhere to go become the focus of a new conflict? The only in-depth conversation I have seen on this topic in Angola is from the country’s Catholic radio station, Radio Ecclesia.

In an hour-long interview with the coordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Fr Celestine Epalanga paints a picture of the complexity of the situation.

Epalanga begins by stating that the Angola–DRC migration situation is multifaceted. For a start it is not clear how many of the deported DRC citizens are refugees. There is evidence that at least 50 refugees violated the conditions of their refugee status and were found in the illegal mining areas. There are confirmed reports that police officers regularly tear up refugees’ documentation, claiming they are in the country illegally, and seize their possessions prior to deportation.

Not indirectly related to “Operation Transparency” is the fact that Angola’s fluid 2,000km border with the DRC is almost impossible to monitor. This leads to thousands of people crossing the border unchecked each week. Many of these people find themselves working in the illegal diamond mines. They are often forced to work there under inhumane conditions and without recourse to help from the authorities because that would draw attention to their illegal migratory status.

The illegal mining operations also have nefarious consequences on the environment, laying waste to prime agricultural land which results in farmers’ expulsion from their land.

In sum, the reports coming out of Angola are worrying, especially the reports of human rights infringements. The mass expulsions pose a risk of additional violence in an already volatile DRC. On the other hand, unregulated diamond mining threatens the way of life of the local indigenous population.  The Angolan government seeks to diversify economic and agricultural activity throughout Angola and is entirely in its right to promote sustainable resource extraction and agricultural activity.

In a region of extreme poverty and uncontrolled migratory flows, it is clear that a feasible solution can only be found if the governments of Angola and the DRC are willing to work together. Jointly they need to understand the complexity of the violence–migration–poverty triangle. Only then will they find solutions that can uplift the lives and promote the rights of both their populations and advance lasting peace in the region.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.