Useless. Alone. Not human. Worthless. Without a future. These are some of the words that foreign children use to describe what it feels like to be in South Africa. These children have crossed into the border unaccompanied, or became separated from their caregivers at some point during their journey. They are undocumented and at risk of statelessness.
“I am a person, but even though I know I am a person, it doesn’t always feel like other people do,” one child explains. “Without my papers I am invisible,” another adds. “I am not a human without the papers that they want.”
The world is currently witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with one person forcefully displaced from their homes every two seconds due to conflict. This means that 37 000 people flee their homes each day. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) just over half of all refugees are under the age of 18.
Africa has the highest proportion of child migrants globally, and South Africa remains an attractive destination for millions of people who journey from their country of origin searching for better economic, social, political and educational opportunities.
Among those who cross into the country, thousands of children arrive in South Africa alone. Some have travelled on their own while others lose their parents or chaperones on the journey, crossing the borders through irregular and often illegal channels. Once they arrive, they live in limbo – often ordered by the courts into state care until the age of 18, but with little support or options available to legitimise their stay in the country.
Situated around 18km from the Beitbridge Border Post, Musina is the northern-most town in South Africa’s Limpopo province and a first stop for many migrants who cross into the country from Zimbabwe. The borders there are porous, with deep footpaths marking the points where people cross the dry Limpopo river bed, through the three layers of broken fence, into South Africa.
Eleven-year old **Mendi says her mom told her this is how they would have crossed into South Africa from Zimbabwe. As they were walking across the river bed though, they were separated. “She told me that we were coming to South Africa to live,” the young girl explains, tugging at the hem of her dress. “But when we got to the border, she saw the police and she ran away.”
Mendi is one of hundreds of foreign-born children living in state care in South Africa. She only had one friend back home in the village where she and her mother lived, and no other family. Today, she has lots of friends in the CWM Home for Unaccompanied Girls where she lives. She arrived three months ago, too late to be enrolled in school for the year, but looks forward to the opportunity to start her education in the new year. “I did not go to school at home, but I want to become a teacher,” she smiles.
Twelve-year old *Jessica also wants to be a teacher. She has been living at the shelter for two years. Before that, she lived on the streets in Zimbabwe after both her parents died when she was six years old.
“The people there said here is a shelter in South Africa,” she says, “and if I come here then they will give me food and clothes and a place to live. And an education,” she adds. It is the education that she was most excited about, and today enjoys going to school. Her favourite subject is English.
Sindi Moyo is a Child Protection Officer at the Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town and works with foreign children in South African care, assisting with the documentation and protection of those who are unaccompanied or have become separated from their caregivers.
She says one third of foreign children who land up in South African care centres have fled conflict. Other motivating factors were based on economic and educational opportunities. Without legal documents, they are vulnerable to a number of social ills and struggle to gain access to education, healthcare and other basic rights.
She says these children have different contexts and represent at least 15 countries of origin. While thousands cross into South Africa, around 34% have no documentation at all. Sixty-four percent, however, entered the country as dependents of an adult asylum-seeker. If separated from these adults, however, they are unable to renew their documentation and become at risk for statelessness.
Moyo says that identification documents are vital for a meaningful existence, to access the most basic rights and to plan a meaningful future where they can participate in society in a productive way. Denying this is detrimental to the region and the continent. “Your identity document is the paper from which all your other rights stem in the eyes of the government,” she explains.
The report states that 40% of all the foreign children in South African care are at risk of statelessness, with 27% at “considerable risk “of statelessness.
Liesl Miller, an attorney with Lawyers for Human Rights, says around 90% of the ‘stateless’ clients they see are actually entitled to a nationality by law – but reality differs from the legislation and bureaucracy. Around half of the 700 clients that her three-person team sees each year are children. Many, she adds, have actually been born in South Africa, to South African parents who never registered their births. The longer this registration is put off, the more challenging it becomes to have this child registered.
According to the South African Human Rights Commission, only 43% of births in Sub-Saharan Africa are registered, while in South Africa 5% of children do not have their births registered at all. When looking at children born to foreign parents in South Africa, however, 39% do not have birth certificates.
*Patience has been fighting for a nationality for the better part of five years. She does not know in which country she was born, or what nationalities her parents were.
“My mom died when I was very young, and my dad told me that they came from Zimbabwe,” she explains, “But when he died, I looked at our surname and it belongs to Swaziland.”
She has never had a birth certificate, and was unable to complete her schooling because of this.
She has also not been able to register the birth of her own son – a nationality is hereditary, and she has no nationality to pass on to him.
It is estimated that around 70 000 children are born into statelessness globally each year – a legal limbo where there is not a single country in the world that recognizes them as a citizen or protects them as such.
Earlier this year, the South African courts ruled that both Patience and her son should be awarded South African citizenship by birth. “But that was six months ago,” she says sadly, watching her baby boy waddle through the yard in front of the small room that she rents in Cape Town.
The Department of Home Affairs has still not issued her documentation, and without it she is still denied treatment at the local clinics and is unable to open a bank account. “I am still stateless, even though I won.”