Even though refugees are supposed to be eligible for the Covid-19 grant, they are being asked to produce an ID number. A refugee can produce an ID number if they have a Section 24 permit, but not if they have an A4 permit. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)
Even though refugees are supposed to be eligible for the Covid-19 grant, they are being asked to produce an ID number. A refugee can produce an ID number if they have a Section 24 permit, but not if they have an A4 permit. File picture: Armand Hough/African News Agency(ANA)

Migrants and asylum seekers should be allowed to access Covid-19 grant

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published May 31, 2020

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Pretoria - Refugees and asylum seekers are supposed to have the same rights as South Africans, except for the right to vote and form political parties.

When our government devised the Covid-19 grant, it was intended that refugees and asylum seekers would be eligible, which was a way of minimising the errors of exclusion.

The priority is to provide emergency assistance to all those in need who are living in our country.

The Covid-19 response has been designed to include more people than those assisted with social grants of income. While the intention of policy-makers was never to exclude people, many asylum seekers have been excluded due to bureaucratic technicalities which have to do with documentation. There is a legal challenge regarding the exclusion of asylum seekers from receiving Covid-19 grants, who are waiting for a determination of their status.

It appears that asylum seekers with Section 22 permits and economic migrants are not considered eligible for the Covid-19 grant. As for refugees, even though they are supposed to be eligible, they are being asked to produce an ID number. A refugee can produce an ID number if they have a Section 24 permit, but not if they have an A4 permit, which does not designate an ID number. The issue needs to be taken up with Sassa, as asking a refugee to produce an ID number will lead to new levels of exclusion.

If we are to abide by the intent of the grant, then refugees should not be asked to produce ID numbers, and asylum seekers and economic migrants should be allowed to access the Covid-19 grant. The consequence of denying them this right is hunger and malnutrition, and potentially even starvation. 

Given the precarious situation of the pandemic where borders are closed and economies in neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe are far worse than that in South Africa, we cannot allow bureaucratic wrangling to deny Africans abiding in South Africa the right to food. This goes against our values of Ubuntu, and does not reflect well on our country, considering that we are chairing the AU.

The reality is that South Africa is home to 4.2 million migrants from the region, and 300 000 refugees.

Most migrants operate in the informal sector and depend on their daily income. In the current situation most have no food security, and increasing numbers have no shelter as they have lost their sources of income and have been unable to pay their rent. The government’s Covid-19 aid programmes, which involve food parcels, have often overlooked refugees and asylum seekers, and this is an issue which has been taken up with the South African Human Rights Commission.

On May 12, the Rapporteur for South Africa of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Solomon Ayele Dersso, sent an urgent appeal to the government to protect the rights of vulnerable groups, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.

Human Rights Watch has echoed the sentiments, and called for goods and services to be provided to everyone in need.

In an effort to reach vulnerable households as quickly as possible, the government implemented cash transfers to 8 to 15 million people in order to assist those in the informal economy. The cash transfers were supposed to include refugees and asylum seekers, but a policy decision was taken to exclude asylum seekers.

South Africa remains bound by UN conventions with regard to the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Zimbabweans in particular are facing many challenges, such as having to, at times, pay exorbitant fees to access public facilities despite policies to the contrary. There are many reports of Zimbabweans being turned away from hospitals or discharged prematurely. As a result of the challenges and the sudden loss of income, many Zimbabweans are trying to go home, and the Zimbabwean embassy has been working with the International Organisation for Migration to transport about 4500 back home.

Even then there are difficulties for returning migrants who are forced to spend between two and three weeks in quarantine centres which have been criticised for poor hygiene and minimal food. This has led some to say that had they known the risk to their health in the quarantine centres, given the fact they were accommodated with others who could have been infected, they would have stayed in South Africa.

But for many who have been left destitute in South Africa, the return home means they could at least attempt to farm in the rural areas.

The problem that Zimbabwean migrants face on returning home is that in the countryside one in three Zimbabweans (or 4.3 million people) are facing food shortages caused by the drought last year.

Drought during three of the past five growing seasons has resulted in 1.1 million in the rural areas reaching emergency levels of hunger which are usually associated with war zones.

This year’s harvest of early planted crops is below average. Pasture for livestock has been deteriorating fast, leading to growing animal losses.

It is estimated that 7 million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid.

Of great concern is that food staples like maize flour is in short supply, and on the black market it is selling at five times the price. Even sugar is difficult to find in many stores. Zimbabweans are being forced to live off whatever they manage to grow in the rural areas, but those in the cities are in an even more precarious situation.

Last year, the Zimbabwean economy shrank by 8%, and it is expected that it could shrink by up to 20% by the end of this year. In March, hyperinflation was running at 676%, which meant that even at the start of the lockdown many could not afford to meet their basic food needs.

There have also been problems with the provision of clean water. In Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second biggest city, authorities had to ration running water at one stage to one day a week.

This at a time when water is critical for curbing the spread of the virus.

Other vulnerable countries have been able to access billions of dollars in emergency credit, whereas Zimbabwe has been ineligible for further funding or debt forgiveness due to the $2 billion (R35bn) in arrears owed to the World Bank and African Development Bank.

Circumventing its own rules, the World Bank has used a trust fund to grant $2 million to Zimbabwe to fight Covid-19, and the African Development Bank has given Zimbabwe a grant of $13.7m for strengthening its health system. Given the funding shortfall, Zimbabwe is printing money, which is a recipe for disaster. It is believed that the real rate of inflation is probably double the official figure.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.

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