Child refugees: SA's invisible children

Blocked: Rwanda-born girl and baby are just two of thousands of child refugees in SA without legal status

23 October 2017 - 06:53 By Farren Collins
DISAPPEARED Bahati became separated from her aunt after entering South Africa at the age of 13.
DISAPPEARED Bahati became separated from her aunt after entering South Africa at the age of 13.
Image: Esa Alexander

She was just 13 years old when she crossed the border into South Africa with three siblings. Today Bahati* is in Grade 11, is the mother of a six-month-old baby and works as a cleaner by night.

Yet she does not exist - there is no formal record kept of undocumented and unaccompanied migrant children living in South Africa, or of those who enter the country almost daily.

The lack of data on these children places them in danger as they go undetected by South African child protection agencies.

Their plight was highlighted at a colloquium in Johannesburg last week.

Bahati and her siblings were among 109 cases of unaccompanied and separated foreign children living in Cape Town who were part the Scalabrini Centre's research in the past two years.

The centre works to protect the rights of refugees.

Bahati was born in Rwanda, but her parents fled to Mozambique when she was a baby. They arrived in Cape Town and were placed in foster care after her father died and her mother was jailed in 2010.

"In 2012 we were granted asylum and in schools, but in 2013 Home Affairs wouldn't renew our papers," the now 20-year-old Bahati said.

"Since then we have struggled to get documents. We can't do anything. It feels like we don't belong anywhere. From the beginning it wasn't our fault. We were just children."

Scalabrini found the main reasons unaccompanied and separated children came to South Africa was to flee conflict and the death of a primary caregiver.

"They migrate alone, or with an adult, and typically they enter South Africa without valid documents," its report read.

"It is very difficult for such children to secure documentation in South Africa due to restrictive immigration law.[At least] 80% of these children are undocumented, meaning access to education, health and child protection is easily blocked."

The release of the survey coincided with the Colloquium on Separated and Migrant Children in South Africa, which was initiated to try to find permanent and sustainable solutions to the problem.

"South Africa has no credible statistics of unaccompanied and separated migrant children living in the country.

"Many children remain undocumented, which is of serious concern to South Africa," said Social Development Department spokesman Lumka Oliphant.

 *Not her real name