Kinshasa, DRC - Members of parliament in the Democratic Republic of Congo are demanding the government cut diplomatic ties with its small western neighbour Congo-Brazzaville over the expulsion of tens-of-thousands of its citizens, amid claims of physical and sexual abuse by security personnel.
More than 130,000 citizens of the DRC have been deported from Brazzaville, capital of the country also known as Republic of Congo, since April 4, according to the United Nations. The UN demanded an immediate halt to the expulsions on May 26 saying it was causing a humanitarian crisis, and called on authorities of Congo-Brazzaville to investigate rights abuse allegations.
"The United Nations has received reports of physical abuse, ill treatment, and sexual violence inflicted on the citizens of DRC who are being expelled," said a joint statement from UN special representatives Martin Kobler and Zainab Hawa Bangu last month.
I heard numerous testimonies of victims of gross human rights abuses and cruel treatment. I heard stories of children drowning in the river during their forced crossing.
The two central sub-Saharan Africa countries are separated by the Congo River with their capital cities just 5km apart.
"I heard numerous testimonies of victims of gross human rights abuses and cruel treatment," Kobler said. "I heard stories of children drowning in the river during their forced crossing."
Lwamba Moke, president of Droits de l'Homme en Univers Carcerale, a rights group based in Brazzaville, said police officers had "torn up" legal documents possessed by DRC citizens living in Congo-Brazzaville.
Authorities in Congo-Brazzaville say the mass deportation was legitimate and necessary to end insecurity, which they partly blamed on foreigners mainly from DRC. The country's Communications Minister Bienvenu Okiemy also denounced Kobler for making the public accusations.
"The Republic of Congo is surprised by these rude comments," Okiemy said.
Speaking on national television Jules Mukala Tchumu, a spokesperson for the Congo-Brazzaville police, admitted 17 policemen were arrested for alleged abuses but said the scale of violations had been overblown by rights groups and deportees.
One of the DRC citizens expelled was John Ndala, a 45-year-old father of six children who had worked as a dress maker in Brazzaville for the past 15 years.
|John Ndala says he was beaten with a stick by Brazzaville police [Patrice Chitera/Al Jazeera]
"A group of policemen came to my house. They hit me with a stick on my legs and injured me. They entered my house and took mobile phones, a TV set, even mattresses," Ndala told Al Jazeera. "They arrested and took me and my family to the police station. Later we were taken to a transit centre, and they transported us to the border five days later."
Congo-Brazzaville has deported citizens from the DRC en masse previously in the early 1960s and '70s.
DRC members of parliament expressed their anger in the capital Kinshasa last week after a commission dispatched to investigate the allegations in Congo-Brazzaville issued a draft report. It found security officers in Brazzaville had committed beatings and rape and had confiscated people's belongings.
"The worrying things you notice at the border post where deportees are landing is the level of women and children who present strong signs of fatigue," Florian Mourrier, International Organization for Migration's project director, told reporters in Kinshasa.
Neither DRC President Joseph Kabila nor President Denis Sasou Nguesso of Congo-Brazzaville have publicly commented on the issue. Some MPs in Kinshasa suggested the two should meet to diffuse tension.
"All the strategies and procedures required in such a situation have been applied in vain. We have sent the foreign ministers, authorities of various institutions to Brazzaville. It hasn't changed anything," said opposition MP Clement Kanku Bukassa. "Our head of state should meet his counterpart to find a lasting solution to this crisis."
Others expressed dismay that the mass expulsions were being carried out at a time when other nations in the region were seeking cooperation on migrants.
"I consider it a shame for Africa to witness such deportation at the moment when other countries are getting together to work on the wellbeing of their respective citizens, and the development of their countries," said parliamentarian Hon Tibasima.
Crimes against humanity?
|Elisee Bolumbu was deported after 26 years in Congo-Brazzaville [Patrice Chitera/Al Jazeera]
DRC members of parliament pressed the government to take the case to the International Criminal Court and the African Union's Human Rights Commission, saying the alleged abuses qualify as crimes against humanity.
However, it appears the DRC government doesn't want to upset ties with Congo-Brazzaville. According to Information Minister Lambert Mende, Kinshasa is instead focusing on managing the humanitarian and security situation related to the deportations.
"The government feels that it is acting in the right direction, and will consider taking further steps that respect international laws, not taking strong steps that can escalate the relations as have been suggested by some of our countrymen," Mende told Al Jazeera.
The government is working on relocating deportees who don't families in Kinshasa to a former police training camp 80km northwest of the capital. Al Jazeera met some of the returnees being housed at a stadium and waiting to head to the camp.
Elisee Bolumbu lived in Brazzaville for 26 years, selling women's clothing imported from her country of origin.
"I don't know where to go because I no longer have relatives in Kinshasa," she said. "I will take time to reflect on the future, but I have no means to restart a new life. I was forced to abandon all my possessions."