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Congolese Rape Victims Pay Price of Angola-DRC Oil Dispute

UN calls for immediate action, but governments turn a blind eye.
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Angola is not unfamiliar with bloody land disputes. In January 2010 a bus carrying Togo’s national football squad to the African Cup of Nations was shot at on its way to Luandaby a group of rebels from the province of Cabinda willing to use violence to win independence.

Now friction over a highly lucrative oceanic oil block has soured relations between Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with rape potentially being used as a weapon by Angola.

Expelled Congolese raped

A 2009 UN submission from the DRC cast doubt over the area’s rightful owner and threatened to impact Angola’s status as Africa’s second largest exporter of crude oil. The maritime deposit is located 2km off the Congo Basin river mouth and accounts for 30% of Angola’s total oil production. While it was announced in January that arbitration would be postponed until 2014, tensions over the deal have lingered. The DRC’s foreign minister, Alexis Thambwe, said the reccurring mistreatment of Congolese deportees was an expression of Angola’s “bad mood”.

Last October 600 women and children from the Congo claimed they were raped while being expelled from Angola. A statement released by the United Nations alleged the refugees were placed in cages by security forces and repeatedly abused over several weeks. A 27-year-old woman died.

Maurizio Giuliano, a United Nations spokesman in the Democratic Republic of Congo,told the New York Times it was unclear on which side of the Congo-Angola border the rapes had taken place. Margeret Wallstom, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict urged both governments to investigate the assertion “as a matter of urgency”. However, according to the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP), neither has launched inquiries.The organisation’s spokesman Antonio Mangia said: "[both] governments are trying to keep a low profile about this and say that there is no emergency. They are just trying to shut everything up.”

Deportation to protect diamonds

While reports of rape may be kept hidden, Angola’s ongoing campaign to deport illegal immigrants is highly public.

In an article published in the country’s daily newspaper, João Maria de Freitas Neto, the director of Angola's Migration and Foreigners Service, boasted 5 million illegal aliens were deported during 2010. In 2009 Congolese authorities forcibly expelled around 51,000 Angolans, many refugees from the country’s 37-year civil war.

Angola’s government has repeatedly denied claims of human rights abuse and say the expulsion of illegal immigrants is to protect its industries. Foreign minister Jose Fernandes told a South African newspaper: "Most migrants who come over the border are looking for diamonds, and no country in the world would allow that to happen.” His comments came shortly before new data was released ranking Angola’s diamond industry as the 5th largest in the world, worth $976 million last year.

According to The Economist illegal mining fuelled by undocumented immigrants costs Angola as much as $700 million each year. That said, few Congolese migrants live in luxury. A report published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees describes how the families of illegal miners are often trafficked into a life of prostitution and forced labour.

In a  letter to the UN Security Council, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflic Margeret Wallstrom wrote:“Women are acutely vulnerable in this context. They are in the minority of illegal migrants, and at risk of rape and sexual intimidation by armed men.”

The UNHCR suggests the remedy lies in targeting traffickers and better training for Angolan border officials. Its report critisised the “lack of formal trafficking” for immigration officers and concludes that “Angola does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”. Early this month Angola countered this assessment by increasing its border police and installing modern surveillance equipment.

Suffocated communities

Addressing the issue through diplomacy has so far proved unfruitful. In 2009 both governments agreed to stop tit-for-tat deportation after a spate of expulsions caused widespread homelessness. Despite the treaty, Amnesty International reported a further 12,000 migrants were expelled before the year’s end, during which time it is alleged 99 women and 15 men were raped.

As recently as April of this year the Catholic aid agency Caritas Luebo took in 31 women who claimed to have been abused. Such agencies lead the effort to accommodate a continuing stream of ejected Congolese immigrants. Although historically those expelled from Angola return to overcrowded camps that have limited access to sanitation and clean water, with help from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and CISP, food, security and medical assistance is easier to come by. Despite this, many deportees still attempt to illegally resettle in Angola.

CISP’S Clovis Buala said: “We have some Congolese here who have been expelled twice or even three times. The socio-economic situation in the DRC is not stable and they can’t find jobs here, so they return to Angola.”

Others are often stranded in villages close to the border and taken in by families already stretched for resources. “We work with the populations at the border to accept them. But as the expulsions continue, people are becoming increasingly suffocated," said Father Pierre Mulumba of Caritas Luebo.

Both governments have announced plans to decrease deportations to a maximum of 15 a day to avoid the human rights abuses associated with mass expulsions. But as Caritas Angoladirector Marlene Wildner argues,the dispute remains grounded in natural resources rather than immigration policy. And until the issue of drilling rights is resolved Congolese deportees will remain little more than pawns in a battle of economies.


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