Angolan security forces are waging a campaign of terror -- including sexual abuse -- on Congolese migrants who cross the border illegally looking for work, aid agencies have claimed.
The Italian nongovernmental organisation, the International Committee for the Development of Peoples (CISP), has said that about 20 000 people have been deported from Angola to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since April -- and that many of them were gang-raped and beaten.
Angola strongly denies the claims, but Antonio Mangia, a protection officer at CISP, said: "We are receiving people coming through the border posts who have been badly beaten and many women who have been repeatedly gang-raped.
"Men, too, are saying they are being abused and that the soldiers are searching them internally to look for diamonds they might have smuggled.
"Men and women are telling us they are being stripped naked and put together in overcrowded cells, and that they are made to whip each other before they get food."
He said: "We have seen people coming back across the border who are so weak from not eating that they have to crawl. Many have malaria or infected wounds and sores. Others don't even make it back; they're left to die in prison in Angola."
Mangia, whose staff man three border posts in the provinces of Bas Congo, Bandundu and Kasaï Occidental, said people were being detained for sustained periods without contact with their families before being returned to the DRC, sometimes several thousand kilometres from where they originally crossed.
He said there had also been several armed raids on villages where Congolese people were living and shootings at diamond fields where migrants were working.
An official CISP report, dated April 11 and seen by the Mail & Guardian, describes bullet-ridden bodies being recovered from a river following the raids. Another, from June, refers to people being tortured to the point of vomiting blood.
Mass deportations by Angolan authorities and allegations of sexual and physical violence have been reported since 2005. Last November a spike in expulsions and further claims of mistreatment drew strong public criticism from the United Nations.
But Angola has brushed off these claims and criticism, saying it stands by its right to expel illegal aliens, many of whom come to work in its vast alluvial diamond reserves. Now, for the first time, there is an official scheme to monitor the area. The UN has provided $2.8-million for a nine-month observation project, which started in March.
The agencies involved include CISP, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Population Fund, which promotes women's health.
Observation and support teams have been set up along the 2 500km border to provide emergency healthcare and distribute food rations and basic supplies, such as clothing.
In March the UN secretary general's special representative on sexual violence in conflict, Margot Wallström, visited Luanda to confront the authorities about recurrent abuse claims.
During Wallström's visit Angola's foreign minister, George Chicoty, publicly denied the allegations of sexual abuse of Congolese migrants and said Angola had every right to deport illegal aliens. The country's state media also appear to endorse the mass expulsions, carrying regular reports about the "scourge of illegal immigration" and "silent invasions" by criminal gangs trying to exploit Angola's resources.
In one article, published in February in the government mouthpiece and the country's only daily newspaper, Jornal de Angola, João Maria de Freitas Neto, the director of Angola's migration and foreigners services, boasted that five million aliens were deported during 2010, although this figure is far higher than other estimates.
This week the Angolan foreign ministry spokesperson, Jose Fernandes, said: "Most migrants who come over the border are looking for diamonds, and no country in the world would allow that to happen. These claims of sexual abuse and rape are absolute lies and totally false information."
He said there was no campaign against Congolese migrants and that the two governments enjoyed a good political relationship.
But analysts say that a combination of DRC President Joseph Kabila's rapprochement with Rwanda and Kinshasa's claim to some of Angola's most lucrative offshore oil blocks appears to lie behind the tensions.
Petrus de Kock, a senior researcher at the Governance of Africa's Resources Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, said: "I see these deportations as a symptom of the political tensions between the two countries."
Although it is understood the DRC has postponed its plan to institute a formal legal challenge over the disputed oil zone, tensions remain high and are likely to continue to do so in the run-up to the Congolese election in November.
Kabila, whose father Laurent seized power from Mobutu Sese Seko, will want Luanda's formal, if not financial, support, and is said to be rattled by reports that some of his opponents are already receiving funding.
"The relationship between Kinshasa and Luanda is very, very strange, and it is being made more so because of the upcoming elections," said Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central Africa for the International Crisis Group.
The fact that the DRC has allowed Angola to deport its citizens for so long and in such allegedly violent conditions is seen as underlining Kabila's subservience to Luanda. Stephanie Wolters, a journalist and expert on the DRC, said: "The relationship has always been an unbalanced one and Kinshasa is very much on the back foot.
"It's not so much that Kabila needs support from Angola, but more that he doesn't need anyone against him. Ultimately, I don't think the government of the DRC cares enough about the people along the border to rock the boat with Luanda."
Mangia is hoping that the formal UN reports will have an impact.
Human Rights Watch is also due to produce a report that will catalogue its research into the deportations and allegations of sexual and physical abuse by Angolan security forces. Researcher Lisa Rimli said: "Angola's legitimate concern over illegal immigration cannot justify total impunity for such serious abuses committed by a wide range of its security forces."