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Operation Mbata ya Bakolo: mass expulsions of foreign nationals in the Republic of Congo

Police violence, persecution, arbitrary detentions and rape amid a security operation to deport tens of thousands of DR Congo nationals from Congo-Brazzaville last year were part of widespread attacks that could amount to crimes against humanity, Amnesty International said in a new report today.

The organization calls for a halt of all current plans of mass expulsions of foreign nationals from the Republic of Congo and for all of those unlawfully expelled to be allowed to return, if they so desire.

Operation Mbata ya Bakolo: mass expulsions of foreign nationals in the Republic of Congo documents a range of human rights violations and crimes under international law committed by Congolese security forces and others from April to September last year. During this period, at least 179,000 DRC nationals, including many refugees and asylum seekers, were rounded up, arbitrarily arrested, and forced to leave Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville).

“Mbata ya Bakolo was marked by widespread attacks that could amount to crimes against humanity,” said Evie Francq, Amnesty International DRC researcher.

“Our research includes numerous testimonies showing that, in the rush to round up DRC nationals, police frequently used excessive force, carried out arbitrary arrests, extorted money and belongings, destroyed property and, in some cases, even raped women and girls. To date, no criminal investigation or prosecution seems to have taken place. The Republic of Congo has a clear obligation to bring to justice those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law.”

Mass deportations

Operation “Mbata ya Bakolo” (which means “slap of the elders” in Lingala) was a large-scale security response to a perceived rise in criminality, which the Republic of Congo authorities blamed on members of “kuluna” (criminal gangs) from neighboring DRC. Officially, the operation focused on “illegal migrants,” but in practice DRC nationals were quickly targeted irrespective of their migration status.

During the operation between April and September 2014, forcible returns of asylum seekers and refugees were common, in violation of international law. The deportations were nationwide, with arrivals of DRC nationals registered at 33 border posts. In Brazzaville, after arbitrarily arresting DRC nationals, police transported them to the port known as the Beach – the city’s main point for crossing the border to Kinshasha, DRC, on the opposite bank of the Congo River.

Jacqueline (not her real name), a DRC national living in Brazzaville since 2009, told Amnesty International how the round-ups were completely arbitrary:

“On Friday May 2 [2014] we were at home in the Moungali neighborhood of Brazzaville when the neighborhood chief and the police arrived at our house. They told us anyone from the DRC had to leave. … We are legal in Brazzaville but they refused to even look at our identity papers! We took some clothes and were forced on a boat to Kinshasa. I am here now with four children and we are living on the streets. We are abandoned now. We are in danger here.”

Almost half of the 112 people Amnesty International interviewed said they had been arbitrarily arrested, some of them multiple times, during the operation.

Fears of police violence and growing xenophobia led many others to return to DRC of their own initiative. Marie (not her real name), a 35-year-old DRC national, told Amnesty International about the overcrowded, inhumane conditions at the Beach as they awaited their departure to DRC:

“I spent two days on the Beach before leaving [to DRC]. During those two days, there were children that were dying and even women giving birth on the spot. I witnessed a delivery myself. The baby died because of suffocation. I slept outside with my four children and there were a lot of people. The police trampled them and pushed them. And even though the boat was free, they asked for money to let us enter into it. I gave $US40 to a policeman to get into the boat.”

Violence and rape

Besides extorting DRC nationals for money or belongings, survivors also described how Republic of Congo security forces used physical violence, including rape, to humiliate and intimidate them.

A 21-year-old mother explained how six policemen entered her house at 3am and raped her while she was home alone with her four-year-old daughter:

“They took off my clothes and started to rape me one by one. As I was fighting them and tried to resist, they told me they would show me how a Brazzavillois treats a Zairois [DRC national]: like a dog. One of them tied my arm and the other one injured me with an instrument.’’

Amnesty International also documented the rape of four others, including a five-year-old girl.

Xenophobia against DRC nationals

Republic of Congo police made considerable use of the media to publicize operation ‘’Mbata ya Bakolo’,’ going on radio and TV and using megaphones to encourage the general population to identify the presence of “criminal households.” Recording artists composed songs that incited discrimination and included lyrics such as “the Ngala [foreigners or DRC nationals] are going home now, let us save our jobs and let them go.”

As a result, xenophobia was widespread and DRC nationals were threatened, bullied and harassed by their neighbors and people in the street. They lost their jobs and ability to support themselves and their families. Some were forced to sleep on the streets after being evicted from their homes after police introduced a US$600 fine on landlords with “illegal tenants.”

An asylum seeker from the DRC and mother of nine children told Amnesty International:

“They threatened me at the market saying, ‘We are going to take care of you. You will see.’ The neighbors say they are tired of us, they throw stones at us, and they cut our house off of the electricity grid. Our children don’t go to school anymore because we are scared they will be taken and sent back to Kinshasa.”

“Given this rampant xenophobia fueled by the authorities, many DRC nationals felt they had no choice but to leave the Republic of Congo. The government has called these departures voluntary, but they are in fact disguised deportations and a violation of international law. The authorities must end all official discrimination and urgently address xenophobic attitudes in the wider society,” said Evie Francq.

West Africans now targeted

Amnesty International is also alarmed by a new wave of arrests, detentions and deportations, now targeting West African nationals, since May 14, 2015 in the city of Pointe-Noire.

“The Republic of Congo government must immediately halt this new phase of the operation, and guarantee there will not be a repeat of last year’s mass deportations,” said Evie Francq.