Congolese being evicted from Angola (Photo by Sosthene Kambidi (AFP)

Under the name “Operation Transparency,’ Angolan officials in less than a month evicted between 200- and 400,000 migrants, mostly Congolese from the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), claiming the migrants were plundering Angola’s resources – specifically diamonds.

The charges were refuted by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) which said the Congolese had been working as informal miners and the mass expulsions were contrary to obligations under the African Charter.

“Angola is a democratic and lawful state,” countered Pedro Sebastiao, Angolan state minister and head of presidential security. “Operation Transparency is not based on any xenophobic sentiment against citizens of neighboring countries or any other nationality.”

The crackdown across northern and western Angola was “legitimate”, he said, in order to ensure that the country’s diamond reserves were correctly exploited.

Angolan President Joao Lourenco is said to be trying to boost investments in diamonds and wean the country off a heavy reliance on oil exports.

Reforming the diamond industry is part of that drive, and “Operation Transparency” in Lunda Norte was aimed at reducing diamond smuggling and raising more revenues from the lucrative sector.

Diamonds seized in the operation were worth more than $1 million, the Minister estimated, and over 200 premises for illegal diamond trading were closed with 59 weapons seized. He denied reports that the migrants were evicted violently or beaten by police.

But the minister’s account was disputed by many Congolese who described being forcibly thrown out of Angola even after living there for more than 10 years.

Migrants who crossed back to the border town of Kamako told the French news agency AFP that their houses had been set on fire by police and gangs of Angolan youths, and some had been attacked with machetes and beaten as they fled.

In a briefing note by the Norwegian humanitarian group ACAPS, the Congolese were victims of violence and human rights abuses and many arrived “with almost nothing.”

The returning migrants have ended up in the Congo’s unstable Kasai region which is in the throes of a cholera outbreak and has severe food insecurity. The U.N. refugee agency says the arrival of another 200,000 people into the area could further destabilize this fragile region.

Angola is the world’s No.4 diamond producer by value and No.6 by volume, with companies such as Australia’s Lucapa Diamond frequently finding massive precious rocks beneath the soil.

The operation is scheduled to continue for two years.