The burden of being 'illegal'

‘Principals deliberately make it difficult for refugee or migrant children to be admitted to their schools. I have heard of this happening so many times I can’t even count them,” said Jacques Kamanda of the Co-ordinating Body of Refugee Communities in Johannesburg.

Kamanda, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was among the more than 80 participants at a two-day workshop in the city last week convened by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation.

It was the second of three workshops, attended by South African social movements, non-governmental and refugee organisations, that are part of the centre’s year-long study of the education rights of refugees, immigrants and migrants.

“It’s about resources,” Kamanda said. “Principals see accepting a migrant child into the school as a loss of revenue because many parents of migrant children aren’t able to pay school fees,” he told the Mail & Guardian.

Schools need to be compensated
“The government needs to put measures in place to make sure schools are compensated for those exempt from paying fees.”

In her welcome address, Yasmin Sooka, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights, referred to the 2008 xenophobic attacks in which many foreign nationals were among more than 60 people killed and hundreds injured. “What kind of human beings are we that we can do this to each other?” she asked.

Racism had not disappeared and xenophobia was increasing, she said, referring to the centre’s research as “crucial”.

South Africa needed more programmes that engaged fellow South Africans in the problems faced by migrants and it was necessary to examine the “political economy of xenophobia” to determine “who really benefits from xenophobia”.

She told the M&G that the migrant community had a right to education, just like South Africans.

“The policy framework for education rights is in place but those responsible for its implementation need to be more aware of it.”

How to deal with one more child
She said the “sheer magnitude of what we are dealing with”—poverty, poor access to education and a lack of resources—“is overwhelming” and bodies such as school managements “just don’t know how to deal with one more child”.

Abraham Serote, deputy director of the national department of basic education’s social cohesion and equity directorate, told the workshop that a migrant’s lack of official documentation should not be a barrier to any child’s education.

“Even if a learner does not have a birth certificate, he can still be admitted to the school conditionally.”

He said parents had to provide the school with a birth certificate or an affidavit with the child’s birth details within three months of admission, but “this doesn’t mean that the learner will be kicked out of the school” if the documentation was not provided.

“That is not in the child’s best interests,” Serote said.

He referred to the South African Schools Act, which said school governing bodies had to inform parents of admitted learners of their rights and obligations, such as the right to fees exemption. But that did not always happen.

Parents of learners who were refused admission to a public school could appeal to the provincial education minister, Serote said.

Just another strategy
One participant recalled the experience of a friend whom a school asked to provide bank statements as a condition of admitting his child.

That was illegal, Vaughan Holmes of the Gauteng department of education told the M&G.

“This is just another strategy employed by principals to avoid admitting refugee children into their schools because they see this as a loss of revenue,” Holmes said.

Access to schools was a right that was immediate and not dependent on resources, Holmes said.

The right to basic education “is not qualified by a phrase like ‘within available resources’ as is found in many of the socioeconomic rights provisions of the Constitution,” he said.

Gabriel Hertis, general secretary of the Migrant Community Board of South Africa, said migrants often settled in areas where access to internet and fax facilities was available to assist them in finding employment.

Yeoville in Johannesburg was one of these areas, he said, but many migrant children there were not in school because of financial constraints and a lack of schools. This meant that when parents went to work, or to look for work, children were left alone.

Safer in public parks than at home
Because several families shared flats, some parents left their child­ren in public parks when they went to work in the hope that they would be safer there.

Judith Manjoro, originally from Zimbabwe and the manager of the iThemba Study Centre, which opened in January this year, said she would go up to children in these parks and ask them why they were not at school.

Children often replied that their parents did not have money to send them to school.

The iThemba Study Centre “holds the children and teaches them while they are waiting for places in other schools”, she said.

The centre was staffed by voluntary teachers and aimed to further the children’s education while their parents tried to get them registered at state schools.

“Often, refugee parents are scared to register their children at schools for fear of exposing that they themselves don’t have documents, so they just give up,” Manjoro said.

She had brought four learners from the study centre to the workshop and pointed to them, saying: “One is from Nigeria, one is from Zimbabwe, one is from Congo and one is from South Africa.”

Turned down by three schools
The mother of one of the learners, a 10-year old boy from Nigeria, had tried to register him and his two siblings at three public schools in Yeoville but she had been told she needed to provide their birth certificates before the children could be admitted, Manjoro said.

Kenneth Tafira from Zimbabwe, now a lecturer at Wits University, criticised language such as “illegal aliens” in policy documents, including the South African Schools Act.

He reminded participants of the slogan campaign launched after the 2008 xenophobic violence employed: “No one is illegal”.

The second day of the workshop was largely devoted to group discussions and a plenary session that considered the study’s interim Gauteng report, presented by Centre for Education Rights and Transformation researchers Sehlaphi Sibanda and Mondli Hlatshwayo.

Salim Vally, co-ordinator of the study, said: “This project is not about collecting data for a report that will sit on a shelf collecting dust nor a journal article that very few will read.” He appealed to participants to “collectively decide on a road forward, a programme of action. We need your suggestions and ideas,” he said.

Asylum-seekers: the numbers
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh of Lawyers for Human Rights provided an overview at last week’s workshop of asylum applications in South Africa.

She said these were largely from Zimbabweans and that “South Africa’s asylum-seeker rejection rate” was 96%.

That contrasted with Uganda’s approval rate of 92%, she said. And “once a person has been rejected he/she faces deportation challenges”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ recent global trends report said that “with 180 600 asylum claims registered in 2010, South Africa was for the third year running the main destination for new asylum-seekers worldwide.

“As such, it also accounted for one-fifth of individual applications globally — Similar to previous years, Zimbabweans accounted for the vast majority of all claims submitted in 2010 (146 600 applications or 81%).”

On the other hand, “there are no reliable statistics regarding cross-border migration”, wrote Tara Polzer Ngwato in an African Centre for Migration and Society publication last year. There were “relatively accurate numbers for recognised refugees, asylum-seekers, persons with work permits and deportees, but these do not reflect broader migration trends”.

“International or cross-border migration is far less numerically significant than many South African citizens and policy-makers believe,” Ngwato wrote. However, based on 2008/2009 home affairs figures and on projections from national census data, she estimated:

  • Recognised refugees: from 1994 to the end of 2009 — 47 596;
  • Recognised asylum-seekers: new applicants in 2009 — 223 324. Of these, 4 567 were approved, 46 055 were rejected and 172 702 were added to the backlog of unprocessed cases;
  • People deported: 312 733 in 2007/2008;
  • Total foreign population (documented and undocumented): Between 1.6-million and two million, or 3% to 4% of the total national population. The figure was “lower than many receiving countries within Africa and elsewhere in the world”; and
  • Zimbabweans: between one ­million and 1.5-million in South Africa.

This is the third in a series on “Education Rights of Refugees and Migrants”, a study in progress by the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg. The series will resume next month, when the final workshop in the research process will be held at the University of Venda.

The first two parts in the series can be found online at

Victoria John

Victoria John

Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011. Read more from Victoria John

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