Providing hope and support to migrant and refugee children in SA

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According to The Refugee Children’s Project (RCP), there is a growing number of child migrants in South Africa. This advocacy and relief organisation attributes this growth to many push and pull factors, including economic hardships of migrants’ countries of origin, the death of parents, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, wars and assumptions of a better life in South Africa. The sad reality for many of these children, is that their prospects locally are very challenging.

The Refugee Children’s Project, one of the NGO partners of CSI Agency MAMAS Alliance, works to help migrant and refugee children and their families to build new lives by facilitating their integration into local communities, which includes their access to education.

By definition, a migrant is a person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a state away from his/her habitual place of residence. A refugee is defined as someone who has fled their country of origin because of persecution, wars, political, religious or tribal conflicts and the like. Refugee children can be unaccompanied minors, who flee without the supervision of any adult, or accompanied, where a child flees persecution but is accompanied by their parents of a family member.

This is according to a baseline study conducted by some of the partner organisations within MAMAS Alliance, specifically regarding refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented migrant children in South Africa.

Through their RUMS Project (Refugee, Unaccompanied, Migrant and Stateless Children), MAMAS Alliance identified a gap in service delivery for refugee, undocumented, migrant, asylum-seeking and stateless children back in 2018. These families and children have been found to be more at risk of exploitation, abuse and/or neglect because they could not access much needed services or assistance due to not having proper identification documents.

“These communities remain largely invisible and struggle to access social grants, health care and education. As a result, they remain on the margins of society, often struggling to survive,” says German More, a CSI Consultant at MAMAS Alliance.

“South Africa has become home to a large, and steadily increasing, African Diaspora. Civil wars have forced many Africans to leave their homes. The end of apartheid and South Africa’s economic position on the continent has made South Africa a very attractive location for other Africans looking to stave off poverty and escape from violence,” says Willy Musenge, a Director at the RCP, who says that out of 1 000 migrant or refugee families entering into South Africa, 70 to 75% of the total number of these displaced people are children.

“It remains very challenging to confirm or even estimate the numbers of migrants because many remain invisible, or outside of social support systems and structures, because they are undocumented, move around or even return to their countries of origin,” explains Annelie du Plessis, a Children’s Rights Attorney who has worked within the NGO sector for over 12 years.

Annelie says that while it is true that our social welfare system is stretched, this is largely due to local South African numbers. “Our unemployment rate in SA is at 34.9% and youth unemployment is at 66.5%. This means that most people simply don’t have jobs, which impacts families and children directly. The system is not being stretched by migrants, refugees or foreigners”.

While migrants are estimated to make up approximately 4% of the total population in South Africa and approximately 7% of the labour force, the fact remains that migrant and refugee children are vulnerable and assistance by organisations such as the RCP and MAMAS Alliance are vital.

“We believe that all children, regardless of their countries of origin, need to be treated equally,” says Willy.

Some of the many challenges facing these displaced children include access to documentation, education, access to social services, housing and healthcare.

“Undocumented children struggle to access basic services and support interventions. Many of the families of these children are financially stretched due to unemployment, trauma or staying in limbo,” she says, citing reasons such as not being able to settle anywhere due to documentation, stringent administrative processes, fear and stigma as these compounding challenges.

MAMAS Alliance works with 37 sustainable NGOS from 75 predominantly rural sites countrywide with different focus areas informed by the needs of communities in which they are located, with a specific focus on supporting vulnerable children.

The Mamas within the communities offer a range of programmes and services for children, youth and communities, including education, skills development, income generating activities and programmes for those living with disabilities.

MAMAS Alliance partner NGOs around the country assisting both local and displaced children include Kids Haven, NOSA, Children of the Dawn as well as the RCP.

“The partners who do deal with undocumented or refugee children form part of a special project that offers assistance to these NGOs, the children they assist and their families. The ongoing RUMS project supports NGOs in Houtbay, Winterveld, Huntington, Elandsdoorn, Tembisa, Johannesburg, Mangwesi, Musina and Laudium,” explains Annelie.

“Corporates are encouraged to assist financially in order to give hope to the lives of these children. These contributions can save lives and bring hope to many children who are in desperate need of support,” says Willy.

Annelie says that Section 29 of the South African Constitution provides for access to education to everyone and does not limit this right to only South Africans, or those with permits. “This position was strengthened by a recent court case, in the Makhanda High Court, where it was found that barring undocumented learners from school was unconstitutional”, she says. Various policies and circulars, issued within the Department of Education, now confirm “the right to education extends to everyone within the boundaries of South Africa” regardless of nationality and immigration status. 

As a CSI Agency, MAMAS Alliance is a vehicle that drives and directs funds from the CSI space in South Africa to where they are needed the most. In this case, supporting all children to access basic services including access to education. The ability of MAMAS Alliance to work at no cost is possible because the organisation is funded by Children’s Fund MAMAS, a Dutch NGO that has been co-funding dozens of childcare organizations across South Africa since 2000.

Former President Nelson Mandela once said that education is the most powerful weapon, we can use to change this world.  “Now imagine children with no hope of accessing education, how will they have hope to change their lives for the better. As an organisation, we remain optimistic that our contributions change lives and give hope. We call on all of us to do our best to change lives of children in need,” says Willy.