Recruited to take up hard or dangerous work in mines, forests and plantations, or otherwise drawn by the petro-dollar boom, foreigners from elsewhere in Africa are Gabon’s vulnerable underclass. They have come chiefly from Cameroon, Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Benin and number some 132,000. While a small number may have done well as traders, most work as farm hands and casual labourers, usually under poor and precarious conditions.
In the 1990s there were reports of foreign prisoners and detainees being forced to provide unpaid labour. Security forces even detained foreigners in possession of valid documents and forced them to work for government or even in the homes of military officers or members of the government. Foreigners coerced into domestic work included children, who were not allowed to go to school, and were often victims of abuse.
Gabon’s leadership has led xenophobic campaigns against foreign Africans. Special targets were immigrants from Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, mainly of the Fang ethnic group, a source of political opposition. Feeling against non-Gabonese Africans reached a peak in early 1995, when the government tightened enforcement of resident permit requirements. By mid-February, following a major logistical effort, and against the protests of many African governments, some 55,000 had been forced to leave Gabon.
Between 1997 and 2000 many refugees fled fighting in the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville) and settled in Gabon. By 2006, an estimated 14,000 of these refugees remained.
Gabon’s poverty has steadily deepened as President Bongo and his ruling clique have stolen and squandered Gabon’s resource wealth. Even as per capita gross domestic product exceeds three times the African average, an estimated 40 per cent of Gabonese are unemployed, and the United Nations estimates that 60-70 per cent live on less that $1 per day. The regime has attempted to ease resulting political pressure by cracking down on illegal immigration. Many immigrants have lived in Gabon for years, and have been caught up in the crackdown. During a wave of arrests in June 2005 over 40 immigrants from the Republic of Congo were rounded up and taken to a border crossing. When Congolese officials refused to admit them, they became stuck between the two border posts.