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Millions of foreigners in limbo as cabinet yet to make decision on vaccination programme

The health department said that documented foreigners will be vaccinated and that an announcement will be made in this regard. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

The health department said that documented foreigners will be vaccinated and that an announcement will be made in this regard. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Published Aug 7, 2021


Johannesburg - It appears the South African government has given little thought to the vaccination of non-South African citizens living within our borders. Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) said the government is displaying a “lack of political will” insofar as vaccination for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers go, an attitude it said, that flies in the face of the country’s Bill of Rights.

While the Cabinet is yet to make a decision on the vaccination of foreign nationals, documented or undocumented, the future of more than 3 million migrants, refugees and asylum seekers living here hangs in the balance.

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Phase 1 of the country’s vaccination roll-out programme began on February 17, and nearly six months later there’s still no word on whether foreign nationals will be vaccinated and when.

Cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams said: “It has not served before Cabinet. I am not sure when it will serve.”

Williams did not respond to questions by The Saturday Star about what this means for South Africa's goal of reaching herd immunity, and the fact that we are in a race against time. She also did not elaborate on what “served before Cabinet” means and when this is likely to happen.

The Heath Department, which is responsible for the vaccination roll-out, said it is waiting for guidance from the Cabinet on the issue of undocumented immigrants.

Health spokesperson Popo Maja added that documented foreigners will be vaccinated and that an announcement will be made in this regard. But he was unable to say when this announcement would come.

“We don’t know as yet. What I am saying is that this issue of undocumented immigrants is beyond the national Department of Health. All I know is that there is no guidance on this issue at the moment. From a public health standpoint, it is desirable to vaccinate everyone. The challenge with vaccinating people without having their details or their records is that in the case of adverse effects, we will not know which vaccine caused such adverse effects on them,” he said.

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Sharon Ekambaram, from the refugee and migrant rights programme at LHR, said the South African government has a legal duty to vaccinate non-citizens (documented and undocumented), because access to health care is a human right guaranteed in the Constitution, and other regional and international treaties that are binding on South Africa.

“Beyond the legal duty, it is of course in the public interest that access to the vaccine is determined by risk and need, and not documentation or immigration status. The virus does not distinguish between those who are documented and those who are not.

“It is problematic. While the president has stated in principle that there will be non-discriminatory and equitable access to the vaccine, the lack of any practical directives on how government will ensure inclusivity for undocumented people – compounded by the contradictory statements of some ministers – demonstrates a lack of political to honour this commitment,” she said.

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According to LHR, there are approximately 3 million migrants, 90 000 refugees and 180 000 asylum seekers in South Africa. It stressed that a “lack of disaggregated data may not provide the clearest picture”.

Manager of the Statelessness Project at LHR, Thandeka Chauke, said “it’s apocalyptic” that people continue to die silently, and described the roll out as “disproportionate”.

“We cannot feel the enormity of the deaths because we are locked up. Also, if you look at the language issue, foreign nationals have been overlooked. It would be so easy if we could publish information in Swahili and French. Rich people have medical aid. Poor people can’t even social distance. The poverty and inequality are fuelling this pandemic,” she said.

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Chauke had much praise for social media and trade union movements which she said have been calling for a more inclusive response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have the vaccines but we lack the political will. You cannot use the army and police to suppress people. If I am arrested, why would I come forward? We need a new gesture that will encourage people to get vaccinated.”

Saturday Star spoke to Pakistani nationals who are either South African citizens or in the process of applying for residency, and who have managed to register for the vaccine.

Mohamed (not his real name) said he has been living in South Africa for 13 years. The 31-year-old said he used his passport to register for the vaccine.

“We need the vaccines for work. I work in a barber shop and I come into contact with people daily. I registered two weeks ago and now I am waiting for a date,” he said.

Faizel (not his real name) has been here for five years and also registered for the vaccine.

“I work in a barber shop so I need the vaccine if I want to go see my family in Pakistan. I don’t have travel plans yet, but I might want to,” he said.

The men admitted that they were initially worried, but that they sleep a little lighter at night while they wait for their vaccination dates.

David (not his real name) said he has been a South African citizen for the last 16 years and manages a hair salon. The 48-year-old said he has medical aid but registered via the Health Department’s online app.

“Since registering, I have not heard anything. My plan was always to get the vaccine. I need it for work,” he said.

The Department of Home Affairs spokesperson, Siyabulela Qoza, said their records show there are 153 000 people on backlog projects and about 88 000 active refugees. “Backlog projects” refers to people who are applying for asylum or refugee status.

The Saturday Star