The Angolan government is being urged to carry out a thorough and independent investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse by its security forces against Congolese migrants.
In a 50-page report released on Monday, May 21, entitled "If You Come back We Will Kill You", New York-based lobby group Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents chilling testimonies of men and women who entered Angola illegally to work.
Many claim that they were subjected to various forms of torture, beatings and gang rape while being held in custody in Angola before being deported back to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Angola shares a northern border with the DRC.
Migrants interviewed by HRW researchers between 2009 and 2011 told of how they were rounded up from diamond mines, markets and villages across northern Angola by a combination of border police, immigration officials and soldiers. They were then tied up, beaten, whipped with chains and scorched by hot knives.
Women, many pregnant or with young children and babies, described being thrown into cramped prison cells, which were packed with as many as 100 or even 150 other people. The women were forced to sit in their own urine and excrement and only had access to food and water if they had sex with the security guards.
"In prison they beat us when we refused to have sex with them and they kicked us with their boots in the belly," recounted one 30-year-old woman, who was held in Condueji prison in Dundo, Lunda Norte province, which borders the DRC.
"They came in groups of 20 or 30 to ask for girls. We were 147 women in a cell and had nothing to eat, nothing to wash ourselves with, we were not able to sleep," she added.
HRW noted that children often witnessed sexual abuse against their mothers and other female inmates.
One woman, aged 27, also held at Condueji, told HRW researchers: "We were 73 women and 27 children in the cell. They disturbed us all the time to have sex with us. They had different uniforms, khaki and green, blue and black.
"I finally accepted to have sex with a soldier in a khaki uniform because of the hunger. He gave me biscuits but I hurt a lot from the rape."
Claims that Angolan security services are abusing Congolese migrants – many of whom cross the border to work in the vast open-pit diamond mines – are not new, however.
Nor are the mass deportations. Deportations began in 2003 just after the end of Angola’s decades of war (1961 to 2002), when it began tightening its borders and reinforcing national security. However, the deportations have steadily increased against a backdrop of deteriorating bilateral relations between the once-close allies.
The United Nations estimates some 400,000 Congolese citizens have been expelled from Angolan territory since the deportations began. U.N. reports from February 2011 showed there were 55,000 deportations during that year, and of that total, 3,770 people were raped.
Antonio Mangia, a protection officer at the International Committee for the Development of Peoples, an Italian non-governmental organisation that has U.N. funding to support and monitor Congolese citizens deported from Angola, told IPS that "the situation is very worrying."
"We have seen more than 25,000 people expelled since January this year with more than 1,000 incidents of sexual or gender-based violence in that time."
"Humanitarian assistance is under-funded, so the rights of these Congolese are violated twice, first in Angola, and then when they return to the DRC where they don’t have access to health care, shelter or other basic rights," he added.
Angola makes no secret of its expulsion campaign, regularly writing about special deportation operations in border towns, as it defends its right to protect its territory and resources, particularly diamonds, which it claims the Congolese are trying to steal.
Over the years there have been a number of damning reports published by the U.N. cataloguing horrific abuse claims such as the ones recorded by HRW. There have also been several high-level visits from the organisation’s representatives to challenge Angola about the abuse allegations.
These included a mission by the U.N. special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallström, who also visited border areas in both Angola and DRC last year. In February this year U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised the issue at a meeting with Angolan Foreign Minister Georges Chicoty.
Chicoty, however, while agreeing to look into the situation, has played down the abuse claims. He has said on several occasions that allegations are made up to excuse the border infractions. It is a position shared by many in the Angolan government.
Earlier this month, U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović visited the DRC border and met a number of people who said they had been abused while being deported from Angola.
He told reporters that international human rights law was being violated and that he would raise the matter at the U.N. Security Council.
HRW researchers, who carried out their interviews on both sides of the border, speaking to government officials and aid workers, said that while there was no evidence that the Angolan officials in question had been ordered by their superiors to commit such serious crimes, the victims’ testimony indicated a "high degree of complicity" among the different security services involved in expulsion operations.
"These security officials routinely abused their authority and powers, particularly to sexually exploit migrant women and girls in their custody, and there is lack of effective oversight to prevent such abuses from taking place," the report noted.
And it adds: "Information gathered through interviews with former detainees also suggests that the deprivation of essential items in custody, including food, water, and sanitation facilities, even if not deliberate, increases the vulnerability of migrants, particularly women and girls, to sexual abuse and exploitation, and exposes female inmates to health risks, such as HIV and other sexually transmitted infections."
HRW acknowledges that since Wallstrom’s visit the Angolan government has made a commitment to increase protection of migrants’ rights by taking measures such as the construction of new detention facilities.
But concluding its report, it called on Angola to carry out "a thorough, credible, and impartial investigation into all allegations of serious abuse, including sexual violence, torture, degrading and inhumane treatment, and killings against irregular migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and others during past expulsions."
As well as urging Angola and the DRC to "strengthen bilateral co-operation" to be able to respond better to problems along its shared border, HRW also makes a direct appeal to the U.N. to provide stronger oversight of the situation.