A burgeoning humanitarian crisis among the tens of thousands of people expelled by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to neighbouring Angola is beginning to unfold.
"The fears of a humanitarian emergency and the needs of the people have been confirmed," said the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative, Bohdan Nahajlo, after an assessment visit to the affected region in northern Angola.
The most urgent needs of the expelled are shelter, food, medicine and sanitation facilities.
Tit-for-tat expulsions since August 2009 by the governments of Angola and DRC have led to more than 32,000 Angolans being repatriated to Angola, and about 18,800 Congolese nationals being deported from Angola. Following talks on 13 October in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, both countries agreed to "immediately stop the expulsions of citizens of their respective states".
Nahajlo told IRIN that providing humanitarian assistance to the displaced was becoming a race against time, as the rainy season was closing in and would make the roads from the Angolan capital, Luanda, impassable, and the M'banza Congo airport in Angola's northern province of Zaire was not an option because it was closed for renovation.
"Sanitation [in the reception centres] is very bad," he said. Around 17,500 expelled Angolans were in the Mama Rosa settlement in the border-crossing town of Luvo.
Three settlements close to the town of Cuimba, near the DRC border in Zaire, were also hosting displaced people: there were about 5,000 in Lendi, about 2,500 in Casileha, and around 2,600 in Buela.
In Lendi more than 5,000 refugees had hastily erected very basic shelters. "Water is being given directly to the population in buckets - there are reports of people ill with diarrhoea and vomiting," Nahajlo said.
However, the exact number of people displaced to Angola is unclear, as people may have fled to Cabinda, the oil-rich Angolan province surrounded by DRC, or other areas bordering DRC, he told IRIN.
A recent UNHCR assessment of Angolan refugees in the DRC found that about 43,000 were willing to be repatriated voluntarily, but "in this atmosphere people will be encouraged to return," and the refugee agency was expecting a second wave of about 50,000 people, Nahajlo said.
"Besides addressing the immediate humanitarian and protection needs, we should also prepare for a continuous flow of Angolans into the country," who were crossing the border out of fear, and the hope of being reunited with their families in Angola, he warned.
The speed of the expulsions meant that some people had been driven from their places of work without being able to inform their families, people in mixed nationality marriages had been forbidden to accompany their spouses to Angola, and families had been split, with children divided among their parents.
"I met a man who told me he was given 24 hours to leave, but he could not reach his wife, who had travelled to another town to visit her sick mother. He ended up leaving the family behind," Yolanda Ditewig, a UNHCR Protection Officer who was part of the assessment team, told IRIN.
The Angolan government has estimated that about 10,000 tents, of which UNHCR is expected to provide about half, would be required to provide shelter for the expelled Angolans.
During Angola's almost three decades of civil war, which ended in 2002, the DRC hosted more than 100,000 Angolan refugees; since then, thousands of undocumented Congolese migrants - mostly thought to be illegal diamond diggers – have been working in Angola.
The ebb and flow of people expelled from both sides of the border has become a common spat between the neighbours. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) there have been six major waves of expulsions since 2003, in which a total of 140,000 Congolese were deported from Angola.
Back in the DRC
"There are no sites to host the expelled people [from Angola]," said Willy Iloma, who chairs a human rights organisation and coordinates NGOs in Muanda territory on the Angolan border, in the extreme west of the DRC's Bas-Congo Province. "They are now scattered in churches and among host families; some have gone to Kinshasa [capital of DRC] and other towns."
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, there are two groups in Muanda and Tshela territories: "forced voluntary expulsees who left following threats, and those who were physically deported to the border. Most of them are small-businesspeople, as well as women and children. Although these expulsees have humanitarian needs, the situation is now under control and aid is not currently required [in DRC]."
|Security agents searched us, even our private parts. They took everything. Women had to abandon their husbands and here we are, abandoned; nobody is looking out for us|
Iloma said the expulsees "have gone through a hell that began in Angola when they were arrested and held in cells for three days. Women were raped and men molested, and their goods were taken away before they crossed the border. Some turn to begging; others sell what few possessions they have left in the market."
Some of the women who were raped were pregnant, said Marie Munzi, who was among the DRC citizens expelled from the Angolan enclave of Cabinda. "Some women gave birth during their journey."
Angolan "security agents searched us, even our private parts. They took everything. Women had to abandon their husbands and here we are, abandoned; nobody is looking out for us," she said.
Simon Mbatshi, the governor of Bas-Congo, said steps had been taken to meet humanitarian needs, such as making trucks available to send food to the affected areas, and "the government has decided to vaccinate all the children crossing the border."
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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