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To Angola: Expelling 300,000 Migrants is Not Reform

The diamond industry needs to deliver a strong message to Angola: violently expelling more than 300,000 people from their homes is not the best way to create a transparent diamond trade.

Since the beginning of October, Angolan security forces in northeastern Angola have been brutally cracking down on migrants from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Many of the migrants are artisanal diamond miners, people who dig for diamonds using simple tools and methods. Homes have been looted and burned and Congolese migrants have been beaten and killed, according to witnesses. The violence has forced an estimated 380,000 migrants to flee across the border into the DRC, creating a refugee crisis.

The Angolan government calls its efforts “Operation Transparency.” It dismisses the allegations of abuse as “completely false” and claims it is engaging in a legitimate campaign to reform its diamond sector. Angola points out that most of the Congolese migrants are in the country illegally and do not have mining licenses. Angola wants to expel the migrants so that mining companies can mine the land, generating profits for the companies and revenue for the Angolan treasury.

Angola’s government is using the language of transparency in what can only be seen as a transparent ploy to avoid accountability. The international community and the diamond industry shouldn’t fall for it. Yes, it is true that diamond mining should be done in a legal way. When miners have licenses, they sell their diamonds through legitimate channels and do not resort to diamond smuggling. Miners gain stability and increase their earnings. Governments are able to collect tax revenues and make strategic investments to reduce poverty.

But the most responsible way to reduce illegal diamond mining is to make the mining legal—to grant mining licenses to the miners. Governments and NGOs should also reward miners who choose to be licensed by helping them to become more productive and to get a fair price for their gems. The way to reduce illegal mining is not to do what Angola is doing: trying to stamp out the miners themselves.

Information about what is happening in Angola is still coming to light. Press accounts, however, suggest that Angola is committing some of the worst human rights abuses linked to diamond mining in many years.  Witnesses, for example, told Reuters that Angolan security forces stormed a Congolese neighborhood in the mining town of Lucapa. In the resulting violence, security forces and a mob killed more than a dozen people, according to witnesses.

Across the border in the DRC, refugees are living without shelter, food, or sanitation. More people may ultimately die from hunger or disease than from violence. There is also a risk that the refugees will destabilize the Kasai region of the DRC, where armed groups already pose a threat. (The Kasai province is area that, at Brilliant Earth, we have come to know through our support for a primary school.)

Although these expulsions are shocking, they are not inconsistent with Angola’s past practice. For years, Angolan security forces and private security firms for Angolan mining companies have killed, beaten, and tortured unlicensed miners.

Mass expulsions from Angola are not new either. According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, Angola expelled Congolese migrants almost every year between 2003 and 2012. An estimated 100,000 people were expelled in 2011 alone. During these expulsions, Angolan security forces held Congolese migrants in detention facilities where women became victims of sexual violence. There has been less press coverage of expulsions in recent years, but the expulsions may have continued. In 2017, Angola admitted to rounding up and expelling 2,884 migrants and claimed that another 10,128 Congolese nationals had “voluntarily” left.

For too long, the international community and the diamond industry have given Angola a free pass on abuses in its diamond sector. In 2015, Angola was even elected to lead the Kimberley Process (KP), the international certification scheme whose mission is to stop blood diamonds. In July of this year, the World Diamond Council, a diamond industry trade group, visited Angola. Whatever was discussed, it is not clear that Angola’s government received the message that Angola should not try to end unlicensed diamond mining by violently expelling the miners.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has condemned Angola’s government for “serious human rights violations” and called on Angola to halt the deportations.  It is now time for the leadership of the diamond industry, which has economic leverage in Angola, to condemn the expulsions as well. The KP, for its part, should conduct a review mission and consider suspending Angola’s KP membership. Angola must understand that violence is not a path to diamond profits, but rather the surest way to taint its own diamonds.

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