Thousands of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo are fleeing across the border to Angola – even though Angola has not always been a hospitable neighbour.
So far, an estimated 12 300 people have made the perilous journey to safety on foot, fleeing deepening conflict in Kasai province. More are streaming in every day.
“They are quite exhausted when they arrive. You’re talking about people who have walked from three to seven days, fleeing their communities in Kasai, working their way to Angola. They are running through the forest and drinking unsafe water. Once they arrive in Angola, the Angolan army has been transporting them to Dundo, which is about one kilometre from the border. They are arriving malnourished. A number of children have malaria,” said Pumla Rulashe, a spokesperson for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), speaking from Dundo.
In an emergency response, UNHCR has brought in essential non-food items by air, including 17 000 sleeping mats, 8 000 mosquito nets and 4 000 plastic buckets. Working with the Angolan government, the agency will begin providing maize, beans and cooking oil at the end of this week.
The Congolese refugees in Angola are a small percentage of the million people thought to have been displaced by the conflict in Kasai. The fighting began as a localised anti-government insurrection in June 2016, but has since spread across the province, with both local militias and government troops implicated in atrocities. In April, a United Nations investigating team reported finding 23 mass graves in the area, although the Congolese government acknowledges the existence of just three.
According to Rulashe, many of the refugees who made it to Angola described how their homes and villages had been burned by armed men, sometimes while they were watching, giving them little choice but to flee.
Rulashe said that the Angolan government has worked closely with UNHCR to provide the influx of refugees with basic services. “The Angolan government has been very cooperative…the government has really rallied to the situation,” she said.
Angola’s positive response this time around is in stark contrast to the government’s longstanding and well-documented mistreatment of Congolese migrants that make it to Lunda Norte, the diamond-rich province of which Dundo is the capital. Since 2003, Angola has regularly conducted mass expulsions of tens of thousands of undocumented Congolese at a time. These have been accompanied by severe and systemic human rights violations.
“Women and girls, who are often detained with their children, have been victims of sexual abuse including gang rape, sexual exploitation, and being forced to witness sexual abuse of other women and girls. Beatings, degrading and inhumane treatment, arbitrary arrests, and denial of due process have been common practices during roundups of undocumented migrants, and in custody before their deportation,” reported Human Rights Watch in a 2012 report.
Angola’s recent change in attitude may be explained by its lead role as mediator in the DRC’s other crisis – the tense stand-off between President Joseph Kabila and opposition parties, which erupted after Kabila failed to step down at the end of his term last year.
Angola has been pivotal in getting Kabila to make concessions – on paper, at least – but knows that its influence will be diminished by fresh reports that it has mistreated Congolese civilians. Angola also knows that if the political situation in the DRC deteriorates further, there will be plenty more problems heading across the border.
“Angola doesn’t want to see the kind of instability in its own country that Congo has seen, and needs Congo to stay stable,” said analyst Stephanie Wolters in a briefing last month. With that end goal in mind, a little bit of hospitality is a small price to pay.