Each year, migrant workers leave Bas-Congo, Kasai-Occidental and other areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo to look for work in northern and eastern Angola. They find seasonal work in the diamond trade and local markets, only to be forcibly removed from the country on a nearly annual basis. In 2011 alone, more than 100,000 migrant workers were forced back over Angola’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report (read a more detailed version here), these annual expulsions of Congolese migrant workers have been wrought with sexual violence and other human rights violations since their initiation in 2003.
The primary victims seem to be — yet again — women and girls. Human Rights Watch spoke with one hundred Congolese migrants during 2009 and 2011 who reported instances of rape — including gang rape — and other forms of sexual violence occurring primarily in jails, prisons and other facilities used to house migrants facing expulsion.
The attackers, ironically enough, are the very people charged with protecting human rights and justice in general: police officers, military personnel, immigration officers and other members of Angola’s security forces. They apparently arrest undocumented migrants during periodic “roundups” without presenting them with warrants or giving them access to legal representation. Once they have them in custody, the systematic abuse and sexual torture begins.
Victims say women have been threatened with beatings or deprived of food and water for themselves and their children if they refuse to have sex with guards in detention facilities. In dangerously overcrowded and unsanitary cells, children are forced to watch prison guards have sex with their mothers. Women and young girls look on as other detainees are raped, perhaps waiting for their own turn. From Human Rights Watch:
A 27-year-old Congolese woman expelled in June 2011 described her plight…”We were 73 women and 27 children in the cell. They disturbed us all the time to have sex with them. Women accepted due to the suffering. There was nothing to eat or drink or water to wash. Sometimes they brought biscuits for the children, but only for the women who accepted having sex with them.”
Another former detainee held in the same prison in June 2011 said: “We were 57 women and 10 children in a cell. Men came all the time, day and night, requesting sex from women. They came in groups of three or four. They raped some women. All this happened in the same cell. The children saw everything and cried a lot. I resisted and an agent kicked me in my belly.”
These women are in Angola illegally, but does that fact really deny them basic human rights? Does it give authorities the right to do whatever they want in terms of sexual exploitation?
Apparently it does in Angola. HWR reports that Angolan officials have repeatedly minimized accusations of sexual abuse and other violations occurring in their migrant detention facilities despite the fact that the United Nations, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and other human rights groups have called them out on it. Following visits from UN representatives in 2011 — including UN Secretary-general Ban Ki-moon — Angola pledged to crack down on human rights violations against migrants, but hasn’t actually enacted legislation to back up its apparently empty promises. As Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Africa director states,
Angola has the right to expel irregular migrants, but this does not justify denying them basic rights…Torture, beatings, and rape and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment violate both Angola’s law and international law.
Obviously, Angola’s government has a duty to protect individuals from systematic sexual abuse, maltreatment, and torture — whether or not the victims are legal citizens. HRW urges Angolan officials to investigate all accusations of abuse (sexual and otherwise) made against security force members involved in migrant expulsion. They likewise advise prosecuting those officials who fail to report human rights violations in detention facilities and enacting a zero tolerance policy against those found guilty of sexual violence and exploitation. On the flip side, Congolese migrants undoubtedly need legislation protecting their rights to due process, and at the very least, to improve conditions in detention centers.
All of these measures, however, are at the mercy of the Angolan government’s whims and priorities. In March 2012, Angolan police did open an investigation into the deaths of three Congolese migrants who were suffocated in an overcrowded cell. Perhaps a step in the right direction. However, without international and grass roots pressure, pursuing justice for just three victims of wrongful death still leaves quite a lot of headway to be made on behalf of the thousands of Congolese migrants who are sexually violated on Angolan soil each year.
Take action! Sign the petition below to urge Angolan officials to crack down on sexual mistreatment of Congolese migrants.
Photo Credit: hdptcar via Flickr