The Angolan government recently renewed its pledge to issue a national document for every immigrant and refugee living in the African nation without a residence permit, but observers say little has changed.

There are at least 56,000 refugees and asylum seekers and 200,000 immigrants in Angola. In addition, an unknown number of people have entered the country without a permit or remained after their visas expired.

Without proper documents, foreigners can’t open businesses, own property, be legally employed, or receive medical treatment in public hospitals.

“All I have is a declaration, which has to be renewed after three months. But such document is not enough to allow us to open a bank account, for instance,” explained Saidou Cisse, a 39-year-old man from Guinea.

Born in Conakry, Guinea’s capital city, Cisse moved to Luanda 16 years ago. He now has three Angolan-born children, but his status as an undocumented foreigner has not changed.

Like many in Luanda and in other cities and rural areas, Cisse has faced great difficulties in getting formal employment.

According to sociologist Paulo Inglês, a professor at University Jean Piaget in Viana, most of the small grocery stores that exist in Angola – called cantinas – are run by foreigners.

“They have a great economic relevance, but nevertheless they are continually forgotten by the State,” Inglês told Crux.

According to Brazilian-born Scalabrinian Sister Neide Lamperti, who has been working with immigrants in Angola for more than 11 years, foreigners – mostly from Mali, Nigeria, and Eritrea – employ 17,000 Angolans in their cantinas.

“But many see them as a burden to society. They face prejudice and neglect,” she told Crux.

On October 5, during a conference on immigration promoted by international organizations and several Church services working with foreigners in Angola, an official of the Service of Migration and Foreigners said the government is working to register and grant a document to all immigrants and refugees.

“That process has been approved by the Council of the Republic, so it is an official decision. But it is up to civic organizations to pressure the authorities to really implement it,” Inglês said.

That measure would open the door for foreigners to obtain other basic documents and rebuild their lives, but people still do not believe it will really be carried out.

“That is the case with the current legislation. It establishes several important elements and encompasses all foreigners, but it is not effective,” Lamperti said.

Most of the immigrants and refugees come from neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where violence between militias and government forces caused thousands of deaths in Kasai in 2016 and 2017 and led 35,000 Congolese to flee to Angola.

Many of them have already gone back to Congo, but around 7,000 people still live in Angola.

The other undocumented immigrants come from 18 other African countries, and mostly live in Luanda and Viana.

“Those are the people in greatest need. Although many of them are professionals, without documents they cannot work and have to accept any kind of job to survive,” Lamperti said.

Human trafficking is common among undocumented migrants, especially involving women and children. Many women are forced to prostitution.

Large waves of immigrants arrived in Angola between 2002-2014, when the country reaped the economic benefits of oil production.

“But that phase ended, and a crisis began. With the declining economy, the immigrants and refugees who came for better opportunities ended up with no money and no documents,” Inglês said.

In a country where almost half of the people live in extreme poverty, “a foreigner’s socioeconomic situation is not different from that of an Angola national,” Inglês continued. Many Angolans, he added, also do not have documents, being forced to work in the underground economy.

“But the opportunities they have are different. Foreigners obviously have a disadvantage in comparison with Angolan nationals,” he said.

Another barrier is the language. A large number of the immigrants don’t speak Portuguese.

“Many refugees came when they were very young and they could not study here, so a large number are illiterate,” Lamperti added.

Church groups offer Portuguese classes to foreigners and give them legal assistance. They also offer professional education and entrepreneurship programs.

“The Church does very important work with immigrants in Angola. It is at the center of the debate about public policies for them,” Inglês said.

Despite the pressure from Church organizations on the government to implement solutions for the immigration crisis, no progress has been made over the past few years. Many immigrants, Lamperti noted, think about moving to Brazil, Europe, and the United States.

“Unfortunately, the government does not care about them here. There is no plan for them,” she said.

Since the beginning of 2022, many Angolans, especially the young, had been hoping that the August general elections would bring political change, after 47 years with the same party – the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (known as MPLA) – ruling the nation.

Despite claims of fraud, President João Lourenço was re-elected, meaning a continuation of the status quo.

Most foreigners, however, had never seen the electoral process as a way of improving their condition in the country.

“Even the opposition never mentioned the refugees’ situation. It is as if they do not exist,” Lamperti said.

For Saidou Cisse, the Guinean immigrant, the potential election of Adalberto Costa Júnior, Lourenço’s major adversary, was not a reason to celebrate.

“That would not change anything. It would be all the same for us,” he said.