Lifting the veil on migrants and myths

In 1999 Yaguine Koita (15) and Fode Tounkara (16) from Guinea were found dead in the landing gear of a plane in Belgium. In the one’s pocket was a note that read in part: “— it is to your solidarity and generosity that we appeal for help — If you see that we have sacrificed ourselves and lost our lives, it is because we suffer too much — and need your help to struggle against poverty and war — Please excuse us very much for daring to write this letter.”

Researchers at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation chose extracts from this letter for the cover of their 2005 booklet on the education rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants. The booklet was aimed at encouraging a deeper understanding of and compassion for the problems faced by migrants in South Africa.

Building on previous work, the researchers are nearing the culmination of a year-long study that suggests violations of the right to education of refugees and migrants are a devastatingly widespread problem.

Gladys Mokolo runs a crèche in Orange Farm that accepts foreign children with no documentation. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Yet the study also shows the resilience of immigrants. It details various initiatives taken by organisations of migrants and, in a newly reported development, many examples of co-operation between South African social movements and immigrants.

On-site interviews of pupils and parents in three regions spanning rural, urban and township areas — Gauteng, Limpopo and the Western Cape — have formed the substance of the study, which has identified five primary factors that inhibit children’s participation in education. They are the cost of education, ignorance of the law among school and government officials, a lack of awareness among migrants about their education rights, absence of documentation, and xenophobic or discriminatory practices in schools.

Topics covered in the testimonies include access, social services and education. They traverse gender issues, unaccompanied minors, obstacles preventing schooling and migrants’ participation in community structures and events.

Resilience and solidarity
Included in the testimonies collected by the researchers are stories such as that of a 17-year-old Somalian orphan who travelled through Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique to get to South Africa. In his “travelogue” he suggested there was a vital social network throughout the continent that relied on solidarity, not money, to function.

In similar vein, Mary Tal, an immigrant from Cameroon, formed an association in 2007 that aims to “prepare refugee women to adapt to their lives in South Africa”. For most of these women, “living in South Africa is hell”, she said. The association has assisted numerous women with information concerning the education of their children and access to early-childhood learning facilities and schools. The researchers speak of Aunt Zulekha from Somalia who, breaking a stereotypical perception of the passive role of women in Somali communities, has shown herself to be an assertive and confident supporter of the education rights of both girls and boys in Somali communities.

The increasingly important role of South African social movements in working with migrants is evident throughout the study. Researcher Mondli Hlatshwayo provides the example of Gladys Mokolo, who belongs to the Kganya Women’s Consortium and is a member of the Orange Farm water crisis committee. “She is also running a crèche in Orange Farm that accepts all children, regardless of their documentation.” This is significant because the lack of appropriate documents such as birth certificates has frequently served as an impediment for enrolment in preschools and schools.

Hlatshwayo said Mokolo “indicated that primary schools in the area accept progress reports from her crèche as valid documentation. This means that migrant children are also able to benefit from this arrangement, because they just have to submit a progress report from her crèche.”

The researchers introduced the Somali Association of South Africa to the Migrant Health Forum, which consists of South African social-service support organisations and migrant organisations. “The Somali Association of South Africa asked for assistance and support for conducting English literacy classes and HIV/Aids education for the Somali migrants. The forum responded positively,” said Hlatshwayo.

Researcher Kara Mackay provides examples which indicate that South African civil society organisations such as People against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty and the Agency for Refugee Education Skills and Advocacy pick up the challenge where the state is found wanting.

Sehlaphi Sibanda’s research in Limpopo uncovered examples of migrant child labour on farms, of domestic and often unpaid labour, of prostitution and “taxi touts”. But the research also highlights initiatives such as the children’s committees in Musina that help migrant children integrate with local children. In Cape Town researchers refer to some schools, and organisations such as the Children’s Resource Centre, that educate people about xenophobia.

Refugees’ awareness of rights
Most migrant parents whom the researchers interviewed were not aware of their education rights. The migrants who had some awareness of these rights often did not know how to claim them or access structures to support them. School officials were not particularly helpful.

All study participants welcomed the possibility of learning more about their rights, but the majority said that even if they fully understood them, they did not have confidence in the government’s ability to fulfil their right to free, compulsory basic education.

Money as a barrier
Just like asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants have a right to access clinics, hospitals and medical care, including ARVs. They also have a legal right to access free education. The National Education Policy Act of 1996 states that no pupil “may be suspended from classes, denied participation in sporting or cultural activities, denied a school report or transfer card, or be victimised because his or her parent has not [paid] or cannot pay school fees”. The South African Schools Act of 1996 states that principals and governing bodies must inform all parents about their right to apply for exemption from school fees.

Consistent with previous studies, the researchers have found that cost is the single greatest factor that inhibits pupils from attending school. A 2003 research report found that 26% of child immigrants at primary level and 39% at secondary level were not at school because they could not afford to pay school fees.

This was partly because many had not been informed about the law, which schools often ignored to collect as much money as possible. The researchers are investigating how far the state’s progressive introduction of no-fee schools over the past few years has changed this situation.

Refugees sometimes received threatening letters from debt collectors about unpaid fees, leaving them in fear of legal action, being denied schooling or being deported, the study found. Students would sometimes stay home for a year to help around the house so that their parents could earn another year’s worth of income before they returned to school.

Even if refugees were able to secure exemption from the cost of schooling, there was a strong stigma about reliance on government aid for ­education. Refugee parents said they felt shame at the thought of seeking such aid for their children’s education, and children receiving aid were bullied by their peers. Officials intensified this stigma by refusing to distribute applications for fee exemptions inside schools, or by expressing disapproval to parents who requested such forms.

Refugees and migrants also faced great difficulty in finding funding for universities, which offered it only to South Africans. The primary organisation offering external aid, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — often could not afford adequate support.

Xenophobia and culture
Refugees are often referred to as a homogenous category, but testimonies the researchers have gathered shed light on the diversity of difficulties posed by language, national origin, social class, religion and culture.

Schools sometimes illegally reject refugees because they do not speak English. In Limpopo, most migrant pupils speak isiNdebele and Seshona, but the languages of instruction in the schools studied were Tshivenda, Northern Sotho or Xitsonga.

Pupils found speaking in their home languages would be punished and it was difficult for migrant parents to assist their children with homework. “They [teachers] would refuse to explain things slowly or they would explain the lessons in Zulu or Sotho,” said Angela (not her real name), a pupil in a family of seven living in a two-bedroom flat in the inner city of Johannesburg.

“Some of the teachers complained about the foreigners and how we are taking up space in their schools,” Angela told the researchers.

Xenophobia can also pose safety concerns when pupils travel to school on taxis and trains, because girls are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

Researchers observed that in some Gauteng schools Somali children were subjected to prejudice from teachers and pupils alike, who mocked them for wearing the veil.

One girl in Limpopo was called a witch and a prostitute by her teacher because “all Zimbabweans are”. A pupil at a Musina school said other children were reluctant to play with him because “Zimbabweans smell”.

Migrant parents, in many cases, felt excluded from influencing school bodies. One guardian of two matric students expressed doubts about some of the teachers’ qualifications and was also dissatisfied with the curriculum offered at the school. But when asked how she had addressed these concerns, the guardian said: “As migrants, there is nothing we can do. Who do we speak to? Who will listen to us?”

A documentation ‘nightmare’
In South Africa, children born to immigrants are supposed to have the same rights as those who are South African by birth. But children must be in possession of a valid birth certificate to claim these rights, including the right to education.

Most schools require a birth certificate to allow enrolment. A section 22 asylum-seeker permit is supposed to enable parents to apply for a birth certificate for their child, but the study found that these permits were often not accepted by the department of home affairs, leaving parents without valid documents to register the birth of a child.

Cameroonian Mary Tal helps immigrant women to settle in. (David Harrison, M&G)

“I have been trying to get them birth certificates, but in vain,” said one Zimbabwean mother who has lived in South Africa since 2003. “I hold an asylum-seeker permit, but they [home affairs] said they can’t give me a birth certificate because I don’t have a South African ID. They told me to go back to Zimbabwe for the birth certificate.”

The study suggests that the emphasis on birth certificates, as well as the condition that pupils should have applied for enrolment the previous year as a prerequisite for admission, are systematic ways of excluding migrants from education and establishing notions of who belongs and who does not.

Almost all migrants in the study said they faced difficulty in getting documentation from home affairs. One participant had been trying since January this year to get her permit extended, with no success. Her application is now overdue and she has spent several nights in jail as a result, during which time she has had to leave her children unattended. “To be without proper documentation in South Africa is to be without any human rights,” Mackay said. “One cannot access education, medical care or even open a bank account without a section 22 asylum-seeking permit.”

Documentation and status determination are even more difficult for unaccompanied minors, who must navigate their efforts between the social welfare and home affairs departments. If students lack documentation, it is also impossible for them to complete matric. One 19-year-old in Limpopo, for example, has been notified by his school that he needs to produce a South African ID book to write his exams. He is worried: home affairs told him it would not issue a birth certificate because he was not born in South Africa and not entitled to one. His situation is made worse because the centre for unaccompanied minors where he lives is likely to ask him to find other accommodation because he is older than 18.

Some refugees’ original homes and schools have been burnt down or destroyed, and some have escaped conditions of war and civil strife. Conditions such as these make it impossible for them to obtain their original school report cards and transfer forms.

According to legislation relating to the admission of pupils to public schools, the principal must help the parent obtain documents if they are not readily available, and the child must be admitted to the school conditionally. If, after three months, documentation is not available, the school governing body, in consultation with district officials, must attend to the matter. Also by law, a child without legal status can still be admitted to a public school as long as a caregiver or parent can provide proof that an application has been made to stay legally in South Africa.

But the study found that both these policies were frequently violated.

Implementation of government policy posed a major obstacle across the three sites studied. One refugee who has lived in the country for 13 years has never been able to get permanent residence status or a South African ID, both of which were supposed to have been available after five years. “Just thinking I need to renew my family’s status makes me stressed and gives me nightmares.”

Home affairs offices were frequently cited as intimidating to refugees, and those trying to obtain service from the centre would “rather keep quiet to minimise the aggression of officials”.

The research will continue with interviews of provincial and national education department officials. It will work with schools in the three provinces that have sizeable numbers of immigrant students and encourage links between South African social movements and immigrant communities.

For now, all the researchers say xenophobia often arises from perceptions that migrants take jobs away from locals, earn more money and substantially increase crime. But the research group has found that migrants rarely use welfare services and that they are mainly young and motivated to work, create jobs and bring new ideas and richness about life, culture and art.

Salim Vally, the co-ordinator of the project, said there was another compelling reason to embrace young refugees: they present us with an opportunity to act with humanity. “Remember too that Einstein was a refugee, and our country can certainly do with a few Einsteins.”

Xenophobia again?
Renewed and organised threats against immigrants over the past two weeks, especially in Alexandra in Johannesburg, underline how urgent it is to facilitate links between South African civil society and migrant organisations, the researchers said this week.

Last weekend, police monitored a tense Alexandra where locals had threatened violence against, and forcible removal of, immigrants they said were occupying government houses meant for South African citizens.

The researchers said the failure of the state to deliver on its socioeconomic promises and obligations to working-class and poor communities invariably fuelled general resentment.

This failure contributed to the marginalised attacking those who were also victims and arguably even more vulnerable, the researchers said. Their study stresses that the struggle for a quality public education system for South Africans includes the rights of migrants and refugees.

A research forum for multiple voices
‘Education Rights of Refugees and Migrants”, the study by the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation, builds on the work of its Education Rights Project.

Over the past 10 years, the project has researched the impact of the cost of education on South Africa’s working-class communities, admission policies, disability and the rights of pupils, language rights in schools, sexual violence and racism in schools, and other areas of rights to, in and through education.

The researchers acknowledge that attempts to improve the education rights of refugees and migrants must address the quality of education of all pupils — in a country in which the education system is failing its entire populace.

The latest project was prompted by 2003 findings that 70% of migrant households in Johannesburg and other cities in South Africa were not enrolling their children in school, despite their legal right to do so with valid documentation.

Funded by the Foundation for Human Rights, the centre’s study has been led by Ivor Baatjes, Mondli Hlatshwayo, Kara Mackay, Sehlaphi Sibanda, Carol Anne Spreen and Salim Vally.

The project will culminate early next year in a conference where representatives of immigrant communities, South African civil society and the government will consider the findings and chart a way forward.

In the run-up to the conference, workshops starting this week at which South African civil society and migrant organisations and state officials will discuss the findings are scheduled in the Western Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo.

The project aims to determine whether migrants enjoy the rights guaranteed to them through South African law and international treaties, to hear the voices of pupils and parents from immigrant communities, and to hold school management and government officials accountable. The findings are still to be published, but the team has shared its work and the testimonies it has so far gathered with the Mail & Guardian.

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled Mary Tal’s surname as Tai. It also inadvertently left out one of the researchers, Carol Anne Spreen. This has been rectified. We apologise for the error.


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