July 22, 2011

Security forces accused of border terror

Security forces are waging a campaign of terror — including sexual abuse — on Congolese migrants who cross the border illegally looking for work, aid agencies have claimed. The Italian nongovernmental organisation, the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP), has said that about 20.000 people have been deported from Angola to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since April — and that many of them were gang-raped and beaten.

Angola strongly denies the claims, but Antonio Mangia, a protection officer at CISP, said: “We are receiving people coming through the border posts who have been badly beaten and many women who have been repeatedly gang-raped. Men, too, are saying they are being abused and that the soldiers are searching them internally to look for diamonds they might have smuggled. Men and women are telling us they are being stripped naked and put together in overcrowded cells, and that they are made to whip each other before they get food. We have seen people coming back across the border who are so weak from not eating that they have to crawl. Many have malaria or infected wounds and sores. Others don’t even make it back; they’re left to die in prison in Angola.” Mangia, whose staff man three border posts in the provinces of Bas Congo, Bandundu and Kasaï Occidental, said people were being detained for sustained periods without contact with their families before being returned to the DRC, sometimes several thousand kilometres from where they originally crossed. He said there had also been several armed raids on villages where Congolese people were living and shootings at diamond fields where migrants were working.

An official CISP report, dated April 11 and describes bullet-ridden bodies being recovered from a river following the raids. Another, from June, refers to people being tortured to the point of vomiting blood. Mass deportations by Angolan authorities and allegations of sexual and physical violence have been reported since 2005. Last November a spike in expulsions and further claims of mistreatment drew strong public criticism from the United Nations.

But Angola has brushed off these claims and criticism, saying it stands by its right to expel illegal aliens, many of whom come to work in its vast alluvial diamond reserves. Now, for the first time, there is an official scheme to monitor the area. The UN has provided $2.8-million for a nine-month observation project, which started in March. The agencies involved include CISP, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Population Fund, which promotes women’s health. Observation and support teams have been set up along the 2.500km border to provide emergency healthcare and distribute food rations and basic supplies, such as clothing.

The Angolan foreign ministry spokesperson, Jose Fernandes, said: “Most migrants who come over the border are looking for diamonds, and no country in the world would allow that to happen. These claims of sexual abuse and rape are absolute lies and totally false information.”

He said there was no campaign against Congolese migrants and that the two governments enjoyed a good political relationship. But analysts say that a combination of DRC President Joseph Kabila’s rapprochement with Rwanda and Kinshasa’s claim to some of Angola’s most lucrative offshore oil blocks appears to lie behind the tensions. Petrus de Kock, a senior researcher at the Governance of Africa’s Resources Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said: “I see these deportations as a symptom of the political tensions between the two countries.” Although it is understood the DRC has postponed its plan to institute a formal legal challenge over the disputed oil zone, tensions remain high and are likely to continue to do so in the run-up to the Congolese election in November.

Human Rights Watch is also due to produce a report that will catalogue its research into the deportations and allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Angolan security forces. Researcher Lisa Rimli said: “Angola’s legitimate concern over illegal immigration cannot justify total impunity for such serious abuses committed by a wide range of its security forces.” (Mail & Guardian)


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