“Sexual violence is systemically being carried out against Congolese women and girls in the context of expulsions from Angola to the DRC.”
These chilling words come from Margot Wallstrom, the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and describe an ongoing cycle of forced expulsions targeting citizens of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that has become a fact of life for many undocumented residents from those two countries. Unfortunately, the violent and repeated attacks on women and girls have received very little international attention.
Beginning in 1975, many Angolans sought refuge in neighboring DRC from Angola’s 30-year civil war, which ended in 2002. Over the past decade, Congolese have fled to Angola to escape violence and economic hardship, and many have found work in the informal diamond mining industry there. In 2003, Angola initiated mass expulsions of Congolese citizens, and DRC responded in kind. Tensions between the two countries over oil rights and disputed borders have further strained relations between the two former allies.
Despite an October 2009 agreement by both governments to immediately halt the expulsions, the practice has not only continued but has grown increasingly violent. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA), more than 12,000 Congolese civilians were expelled from Angola between September and December 2010. Last May, over 10,000 Congolese were expelled from Angola.
While the pattern of expulsions has become nearly commonplace over the past nine years, the surge in sexual violence committed against civilians during expulsions is truly alarming. At the end of 2010, UNICEF reported that more than 650 women and girls had been raped during expulsions from Angola between September and October 2010. And according to the International Committee for the Development of People, just over 1,000 Congolese reported being raped or otherwise sexually assaulted by Angolan security forces during expulsions in May 2011.
In addition to being gang raped, victims have reported being locked up and tortured by Angolan security forces. Public strip searches and body cavity searches carried out without proper protection are routinely reported. These egregious violations of human rights are made worse by the fact that access to deportation and detention sites in Angola, where much of the violence occurs, has been repeatedly denied to NGOs, including Human Rights Watch.
Much needs to be done to protect the safety of vulnerable women and girls, whose precarious situation during expulsions makes them easy targets for sexual violence. Faced with external risk factors, including physical insecurity, a lack of documentation and the breakdown of community structures as they are uprooted, women and girls who are being expelled from Angola will continue to fall victim to sexual violence unless measures are undertaken to prevent these serious human rights violations.
To learn more about the work the Women’s Refugee Commission is doing to protect displaced women and girls who are at a high level of risk, check out Displaced Women and Girls at Risk.