Government policy is failing refugees
Share this article:
THANDILE KONCO and MURPHY NGANGA
Cape Town - Jose Neves Pedro was born at the Johannesburg General Hospital on February 7, 1996. Issued only a hospital letter and handwritten birth certificate without an ID number, Pedro is now one of thousands of stateless persons living in South Africa.
Born to refugee parents, who fled the Angolan civil war, the 25-year-old has no legal documentation to his name. Without an ID number, an ID card, Pedro cannot access his basic human right to work, or study.
Pedro said that his attempts to seek help from The South African Human Rights offices in Braamfontein, were in vain. He handed his information to them in 2018 and has not heard from them since.
The South African Citizenship Act 88 of 1995, which governs how one obtains or loses citizenship, has a provision that states that children that are born to migrants in South Africa and have lived in South Africa until they turn 18 or older and have birth certificates, can apply for citizenship.
Dr Rebecca Walker, an Independent Research Consultant at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of Witwatersrand, explained the biggest issue in regards to children being denied citizenship, is that it results in infringement on their basic human rights which is unconstitutional.
“The biggest issue here is that children are denied access to schools when they do not have documentation, which although is unconstitutional is common practice. Or they are admitted and then cannot write matric exams. This of course, has a devastating effect on their lives and futures.”
Walker emphasised on the importance of challenging the “xenophobic assumption, that parents come to South Africa to have children so that they can access documents and welfare for their children”.
She added that there is no evidence in research to suggest this is the case. “In fact, given the challenges of accessing documents and the widespread xenophobic violence against non-nationals it is more likely that people are put off by this.”
Thandeka Chauke, who leads the Stateless Unit at Lawyers for Human Rights, said the project is the first and only of its kind in South Africa.
The project was launched in 2011, following an influx of queries regarding citizenship, the most common queries being related to birth registration. Chauke explained that the main cause of statelessness is the lack of an efficient civil registration system.
“The regulation that deals with the process of how a person obtains a birth certificate, states that for children born to refugees and permanent residents should be issued with a birth certificate that has an identity number. In practise however, this doesn't happen because the regulations are in fact almost impossible to implement. For the child to be issued a birth certificate with an ID number, they would first need to be joined to their parents asylum file before they obtain an identity number. A child of a permanent resident would have to be joined to your parents permanent resident file before you can be issued with an identity number.”
She added that if Home Affairs had integrated systems once those children were born they would be able to acquire their relevant documents whether it would be joined to their parents respective files. At the point of birth they would be issued with an identity number. But the systems are not efficient or integrated.
“The law says that every child born in South Africa has the right to birth registration, this is confirmed by Section 28 of the Constitution. This includes children of citizens and children of non-citizens. There is a lack of implementation. While South Africa has solid and progressive laws, there is no implementation of these laws, which results in many children going unregistered or not being issued with appropriate birth certificates,” said Chauke.
“We find that xenophobic and racist sentiments and attitudes do affect home affairs officials perceptions and understanding of who is entitled to documentation and what kind of documentation they should be issued with. We see that practice varies between different local offices. We hear from our own clients the experiences that they go through when they try and interact with officials from home affairs.”
Meanwhile, since the president declared a national state of emergency, which was followed by a national lockdown last year, the Refugee Reception Offices has not yet opened their doors to the public.
First, the reopening was extended to September 30 last year, then to January 31 and again to March 31. It has now been shifted to June 30.
With already pre-existing challenges with the department, refugees and asylum seekers are concerned about their livelihood.
Refugee Social Services director, Yasmin Rajah, explained how the delays served as an open season for harassment.
“Asylum seekers' permits are only valid for approximately three or six months. If we do a rough estimation from the time Home Affairs closed their doors, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of asylum seekers have expired documentation. This becomes a serious problem because they are undocumented and people are prompt to harass them.”
“Just like Trump's wall, South Africa has its own invisible one between foreign nationals and the system.”
Ugandan Bolt driver who wished to stay anonymous explained his grief saying “because of my expired permit, I've been having difficulty obtaining UIF. Till this day, as we speak, I still haven’t received any UIF money. Any time I clarify that the Refugee Reception Office extended their deadline, they are not able to assist me. My biggest fear right now is if the banks decide to close my account. The department of Home Affairs needs to communicate with the relevant companies and these companies need to explain to their staff the situation. Because this type of situation puts us in difficult situations, preventing us from moving on with our lives. We are not asking for much, we just that we are treated the same way. Because this is a light form of structural xenophobia.”
Home Affairs spokesperson Siyabulela Qoza said the Minister of Home Affairs Dr Aaron Motsoaledi issued a Directive which extended the validity of the asylum (Section 22) and refugee (Section 24) permits. People who have lost or misplaced their permits can send an email request with their details to the following email addresses: Refugees: [email protected]; Asylum seekers : [email protected]
In regards to the renewal of permits, Qoza said the department will communicate details of an online service that will allow to renew these permits.