KINSHASA, 6 May 2014 (IRIN) - Some 60,000 Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) nationals have returned over the past month from neighbouring Republic of Congo (RoC) as a result of actual or threatened deportation in an operation that has cost several policemen their jobs because of brutality. On 6 May alone, some 2,600 made the journey by boat.
Brazzaville initiated the operation on 3 April, targeting criminals and undocumented migrants. Because it lies just across the Congo river, DRC accounts for the great majority of foreigners living in RoC. Up to 600,000 live there, working for the most part in menial jobs such as hawkers, rubbish collectors, drivers, and domestic workers.
According to a policeman stationed at Ngobila Beach, on the DRC side of the river, some of those packed into ferries bringing up to 4,000 people across from RoC each day claim to have valid residency permits; several said their papers had been burned or torn up by RoC police during the operation.
Voice of the Voiceless, one of DRC's leading NGOs, has denounced the "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" meted out, even to DRC citizens whose residency paperwork was in order but who were still subjected to "barbaric expulsion".
Bruises and wounds are common among the new arrivals, even women, according to a Red Cross official working in a mobile clinic on Ngobila Beach. The official said in late April two women had given birth during the short river crossing.
"There was a boy whose throat was swollen, as if someone had tried to strangle him. The police had beaten him badly, taken his money and phone. Another boy had a hot iron applied to his back and stomach," said the official.
Police officials in Brazzaville conceded that there had been excesses in the early stages of the operation and have announced that 17 officers have been sacked as a result.
High-level delegations from Kinshasa visited the neighbouring capital to "protest against all illegal expulsions of, and human rights violations against, our compatriots," according to the minutes of a recent cabinet meeting.
DRC government spokesman Lambert Mende, citing sources in Brazzaville, said just 1,000 of those who had returned had been formally deported. "It's not impossible that many left anticipating a forceful expulsion."
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) "is in touch with authorities in the RoC, including the police service, to prevent refugees and asylum seekers from DRC and other countries being expelled," said UNHCR regional spokeswoman Celine Schmitt.
Some of those arriving in Kinshasa said they had suffered discrimination, insults and distrust.
"It was fear that led me to come back," said Carole, a 33-year-old trader among the returnees.
She explained that while at the start of the operation police violence had led people to flee hastily, taking nothing with them, things had changed and people were now arriving with luggage, as long as they could afford to pay for its transport.
Those arriving at Ngobila Beach are bussed to a now crowded sports stadium and the grounds of Kinshasa town hall, where food and water are distributed.
"We're seeing cases of malaria, diarrhoea, headaches and children showing signs of malnutrition," said Doris Muyembe, who heads the Red Cross in Kinshasa. "It is difficult to take care of everybody because we need more supplies; medicines aren't available," he added.
According to the Red Cross, half of the returnees originate from Equateur Province, 20 percent from Bas-Congo, 20 percent from Kinshasa, and the remainder from other parts of the vast country. Some have returned using buses hired by the government, others made their own way.
Finding work is the top concern of those coming back. Some have called on the government to establish programmes to allow them to earn a decent living in their home country, so they will have no need to go abroad again.