Some arrive barefoot, others in rags and all of them exhausted and without possessions. Tens of thousands of people are suffering hunger, disease and hardship as Congo and Angola take part in a tit-for-tat immigration quarrel involving mass expulsions.
Most of the deported Angolans had been living in Bas-Congo province, and the forced returns are in response to the waves of expulsions of large numbers of Congolese from Angola since December. Angola says that the expulsions are aimed at stamping out diamond smuggling.
People who have been living in communities for 30 or 40 years have been given minutes to leave. Families have been split up: Parents from their children, husbands for their wives.
They’ve had to walk days to get across the borders. They’re arriving in very weak conditions, with nothing and are very traumatized.
A Caritas survey of the camps in Angola found 65,700 people living there with hardly any assistance for two months. Caritas say there is a lack of food and poor sanitation that is leading to sickness.
“People are dying because of lack of food,” said Sr. Marlene Elisabete Wildner, Director of Caritas Angola. “We’re having to fly food in because the areas are unreachable by road. At least 15,000 people in camps in Makela do Zombo have been impossible to reach by road. We sent a truck and it didn’t make it so we will have to airlift supplies.”
Caritas has launched a nationwide appeal in Angola and is sending food by plane to the most remote areas. A medical team is being recruited and will be dispatched in the next few days to help tackle disease. Caritas Angola is also looking for international help.
“We are trying to get food and kitchen equipment,” said Sr Wildner. “We need transport to get them to their original villages as soon as possible. But their coming back is causing tension with the people already there over resources and land rights as some have been away for decades. We need to work with communities, building up food security and carrying out conflict resolution.”
While in Congo, the picture is just as bleak as people who have been expelled arrive to little assistance for the government. All are without a home or without any idea of how they’ll begin their lives again.
Caritas has been supporting the returnees by finding them homes and providing them with clothes, cooking utensils and soap.
“We meet them in the bush,” says Alice Kafuta, Head of Emergencies for Caritas Luiza in Congo. “From there we take them to the villages. We try to find families who will take them in.”
Families who take in the returnees are themselves extremely poor and have little food. Caritas says that thousands of people are still vulnerable.
The bishops of Kananga have condemned the treatment of the returnees.
“We call on Catholics, people of good will and humanitarian organisations to come to the aid of our brothers and sisters who have been expelled in such a violent manner and left destitute,” said the bishops.
The governments in Angola and Congo have promised to end the expulsions and the numbers crossing the border are down from hundreds a day to only 10 to 15 daily now.
Sr Wildner of Caritas Angola says that it is a dispute about resources and not over immigration policy. She says the poor are paying the prices. Catholics in both countries are joining forces to call for an end to expulsions and help for those forced from their homes.