The tit-for-tat expulsion of thousands of Angolan refugees living in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the repatriation of thousands of undocumented Congolese migrants working in Angola, is raising fears of a "humanitarian catastrophe" in the making.
According to ANGOP, the Angolan state-run media outlet, the number of Angolans forcefully removed from the DRC since a large-scale repatriation operation kicked off in August 2009 had topped 23,000 by 13 October.
The move has been widely regarded as retaliatory response by DRC to Angola's deportation of thousands of Congolese nationals, which had been going on for years, said Maurizio Giuliano, Public Information Officer and Advocacy Manager for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), in the DRC capital, Kinshasa.
"Expulsions in both directions have been going on for some time now, but what is new is the number and intensity we are seeing in this latest wave," Giuliano told IRIN. Since 2003 there have been six major waves of expulsions, in which 140,000 Congolese were repatriated.
A recent OCHA Situation Report said the new wave "started in January 2009, and reached a climax between late August and now. Since the beginning of this wave, approximately 18,800 DRC nationals have reportedly been expelled from Angola."
The statement noted that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) had started receiving reports of ill-treatment, detention, and theft of property during a campaign against irregular migrants in Angola's northern Lunda Norte province in May 2009.
Most Congolese in Angola were thought to be illegal diamond diggers, while the majority of Angolans in DRC had been living there for decades after fleeing in Angola's protracted civil war, which ended in 2002.
The Angolan government described the DRC's decision to apply the principle of reciprocity, and the ensuing action, as "disproportionate", and has since announced the cessation of flights between Luanda, the Angolan capital, and Kinshasa.
According to the OCHA statement there were concerns over the risk of "an actual humanitarian catastrophe" near the border post of Luvo/Lufu, in the northern Angolan province of Zaire, "where a huge number of expulsees are gathering".
Whether the situation would turn catastrophic, Giuliano said, depended on the number of new arrivals, and on how soon transport for them could be provided.
"The main concern now is transportation," and how soon it could be provided, he said. It was also crucial for humanitarian actors to determine the water, sanitation, health and food needs, should the situation deteriorate.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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