All children within South African borders, regardless of their nationality, have a right to education, health and social assistance. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)
All children within South African borders, regardless of their nationality, have a right to education, health and social assistance. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Displaced children find refuge in South Africa

By Don Makatile Time of article published May 23, 2021

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The worst casualties of the wars of Africa are not those who die or have to make do with a missing limb – it is the children.

Some of these children shatter the myth that the resolve to live better is the result of the industry of adults. Some of them arrive on our shores unaccompanied.

According to statistics made available by the Department of Social Development (DSD), 11% of these children come to South Africa due to conflict or war in their country of origin.

Among other reasons: to search for work (41%) or better education (34%), due to the death of a parent or caregiver (3%), to join family in South Africa (1%), on the promise of a better life in South Africa (1%), due to other or unknown reasons (7%).

The issue of foreign children in South Africa is best detailed in the 2015 report Foreign Children in Care in the Western Cape Province by Marilize Ackermann of the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town.

The report notes that to have a meaningful existence in South Africa, identification documentation is vital. “A variety of rights flow from such a document; it establishes a nationality, an identity, and an ability to function within a formal society. For a child, an identification document is crucial in their ability to access their most basic rights, and to plan a meaningful future,” said Ackermann in the report.

She added: “The increasing interest, from both the South African government and civil society, to develop solutions for migrant and refugee children is welcomed by SCCT. This study seeks to assist the formulation of solutions by analysing the position of unaccompanied and separated foreign children within the context of refugee and immigration law, and by exploring the area where migration meets children’s rights.”

Lumka Oliphant of DSD said: “The South African Government through the Department of Social Development ratified the UN Convention on the rights of the child in 1995. We are also signatories to the African Charter on the rights of the child and our Constitution obligates us to afford all children within our borders the same rights. All children within our borders regardless of their nationality have a right to all statutory services including education, health, social assistance and all care and protection services.”

“We have developed guidelines on how to deal with unaccompanied minors which I will furnish for you to look at.”

“Some of the unaccompanied minors are taken to our child and youth care centres so that they can receive all care and protection services. Others are repatriated to their countries of origin for reintegration.”

The SCCT report makes for fascinating reading.

It shows that overall, 42% of foreign children had spent over three years in the South African education system. Regarding access to education, 89% of children of school-going age were enrolled in school.

The majority of children had spent considerable time in South Africa, with 70% spending five years or more in the country. Children in Limpopo were more likely to have arrived more recently in South Africa. Those in the Western Cape had lived in the country for an average of nine years, and in Gauteng, the average was eight years. In Limpopo, however, the average time spent in South Africa was four years.

In an off-line conversation, Oliphant had hinted: “If there was time, we would visit the child and youth care centre in Musina to hear their stories first-hand”.

The SCCT report, since updated in 2020, notes that in Limpopo, the majority of children took the decision to migrate to South Africa themselves (72% of children), whereas in Western Cape and Gauteng, only a minority of children decided to migrate themselves at 12% and 10% respectively. Overall, in 71% of all cases in which the child’s migration history is known, it was not the child’s decision to migrate to South Africa.

Sixty percent of foreign children were male and 40% were female. However, in the Limpopo province, 73% of children were male. The majority of children fell into the ages between 11 and 18, which cumulatively made up 47% of all children across the provinces. The average age of these children was 16. Children tended to be younger in Gauteng province where 52% were under 16 years old. Children in the Western Cape were typically older. At 53%, the majority were 16 years or older.

These children were born in 15 countries, all on the African continent. One in three children were born in Zimbabwe – and whereas children in the Western Cape were born in eleven different countries, in Limpopo children were born in one of three countries. The top four countries of birth, across all provinces, were Zimbabwe (33%), South Africa (23%) and the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Children born in South Africa refers to children born to non-South African parents.)

Oliphant says the DSD does attract requests for relief from non-South Africans.

“They go through the same means test, so the question of how many are approved is immaterial as nationality is not a factor when making the final determination.”

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