No safe country for refugees, in SA or elsewhere

The Pretoria offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees were at the front line in a desperate struggle by refugees and asylum seekers for resettlement in safe countries.

Mulemera Kalonda is two-and-a-half years old. Cradled against the chest of his mother, Beatrice Faida, he has been battling a fever for two days. Despite Faida’s refugee status in South Africa, and Mulemera being born here, they have been turned away from clinics so often that they have stopped seeking such help. 

Mulemera, his mother and three siblings are among the nearly 700 migrants, many refugees and asylum seekers, who were camped on the pavements outside the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the upmarket Pretoria suburb of Brooklyn since the start of October.

Earlier this week, the Pretoria high court ruled that the group must disperse because their occupation of the suburb’s pavements is unlawful. The next day, the group forced its way onto the premises of the UNHCR offices, demanding to be heard. 

After September’s spate of xenophobic attacks, refugees are asking to be resettled in a country where they will be safe. But according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, who visited South Africa in October, this is not always possible. 

Grandi met with refugees during his visit, who told him that their main issues are employment and self-reliance, getting documentation and continued fears for their personal safety. 

6 November 2019: Aisha Ramadani with friends. She fled the DRC, arriving in South Africa in 1999. Two of her seven children were born in South Africa, but despite having birth certificates they are often refused service at hospitals and schools.
6 November 2019: Aisha Ramadani with friends. She fled the DRC, arriving in South Africa in 1999. Two of her seven children were born in South Africa, but despite having birth certificates they are often refused service at hospitals and schools.

In a statement issued during his visit, Grandi noted that resettlement to third countries is a very limited option for refugees, not just in South Africa but worldwide. He attributed this to a continuing drop in resettlement places available globally. For most refugees in South Africa, he said, resettlement is not an option. 

According to the UNHCR, resettlement is the selection and transfer of refugees from a state where they have sought protection to a third country that has agreed to admit them with permanent residence status. In 2018, 27 countries accepted 55 700 refugees from more than 80 000 applications for resettlement.  

Grandi added that refugees opting for voluntary repatriation should be helped to return to their countries of origin. But for most of those who have fled countries with ongoing conflict, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Somalia, this is not an option. 

Outside the UNHCR

Earlier this week, young children splashed in puddles beside women doing laundry. Teenage girls laughed as they walk past men sitting on upturned buckets. 

A small child smiled shyly from behind a fringe braided with bright beading. “Bonjour,” she greets, holding up five fingers when asked her age. Her name is Sara and she is helping her mother with the washing. According to community leader Aline Bukuru, at least 300 of the occupants of this makeshift camp are children. 

The court ruling on 13 November ordered the local authorities to identify the migrants camped at the offices and determine who among them is legally authorised to remain in the country. 

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Under the blue tarpaulin of her tent, Faida glances at Mulemera as he coughs. Like many of the children  camped outside the UNHCR offices, he lacks a birth certificate. Without this document, these children struggle to access the most basic rights and services, and run the risk of becoming stateless. Only after the authorities complete their court-ordered census will the exact number of people and extent of the problem be known. 

“Tell me, if this child will die, what will I do?” Faida asks. Mulemera coughs again in his sleep. “And there are so many hospitals here in South Africa … but they refuse to assist my child because he doesn’t have any documents. Because he is a refugee child.”

Now, when her children are ill, she purchases over-the-counter medicine from the chemist. At least there, she says, they don’t turn her away.

A refugee’s journey

Speaking in Swahili, Faida says she was a child herself when she left the DRC. Her father murdered, her husband persecuted for being a teacher, she fled the country of her birth, making her way to Burundi on foot before travelling through Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique to reach South Africa. Her second-born child, Victoire, was five months old.

Faida crossed the border with her children in an attempt to find her husband, who had fled to South Africa after his detention in the DRC. The family was reunited in Musina, the northernmost town in South Africa’s Limpopo province that borders with Zimbabwe. From there, they relocated to Durban to register as refugees and start their new life. 

In 2015, when Faida was pregnant with their third child, she describes an outbreak of “terrible xenophobia” where they lived, in which at least six people were murdered. She was five months pregnant and could not leave their flat for days, for fear of being attacked. 

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Her husband’s hair salon was looted and they lost everything. The moment they saw a gap, they fled again, this time to Sunnyside in Pretoria. After witnessing a migrant being stabbed for not greeting a local in the correct language and with her husband in hospital, still suffering health complications, she decided to move her children and set up camp outside the UNHCR offices. 

She has been unable to replace the birth certificates they lost when they fled. Mulemera and his brother are the youngest and were both born in South Africa, but lack documentation. Despite attempting to register them after their births, she was refused help. 

“The thing that gave me a pain in my heart is that, when I went to Durban to ask for a birth certificate for my child, the person told me that I am a foreigner and I don’t deserve to have papers.” 

Blameless children are stateless

Mulemera and his siblings risk being stateless. Liesl Muller from Lawyers for Human Rights explains that statelessness is “a legal term that means no country in the world recognises you as a citizen”.

Documentation that shows your name and nationality is necessary for schooling, healthcare, finding employment or being allowed to drive a car. “Without it, you’re completely invisible under law and cannot access your rights. You basically can’t take part in society,” she says.

Even with proper documentation, xenophobic sentiments create considerable obstacles for refugees in South Africa. Aisha Ramadani, also from the DRC, has experienced this. Despite having a creased sheet of paper that is a photocopy of her youngest child’s unabridged birth certificate, she is unable to get him into a school or hospital. She says that although he is a South African citizen, he is denied access because she is a refugee.

Ramadani says the Department of Home Affairs supplied her with only this sheet of paper and not “proper” certification. “To register your child at school, they asked the birth certificate and you show them this one and they say no no no, this is not a birth certificate.” 

She cannot reconcile that her children must be treated differently, or understand the hostility of hospital staff. “They tell you that you must go back to your country. To do what? To die?” She squares her shoulders. “Most of us ran away from our countries because we don’t want to die. And now you want to kill us here?”

‘Not feeling like human beings’

The future she once envisioned for her family in South Africa is no longer an option. The previous week’s storm damaged many personal belongings and has left the ground muddy. “We want to move so that we can change our life and come back to being human beings. Because now we are not feeling like human beings.”

Without documentation, it is impossible for these children to legally cross borders. This makes resettlement an even greater challenge for the refugees and their families. 

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Should the children become separated from their families or orphaned, they are at risk of statelessness because of their lack of documentation. Muller says Lawyers for Human Rights often take on cases such as this, with children at the greatest risk and making up the majority of her clients. 

Faida places her palm on Mulemera’s head and checks his fever. “They will be useless in this country. They won’t be able to do anything. What will be their future?”

At this stage, there is no answer to her question. After the court ruling that found their stay to be unlawful, hundreds of people who had been camped outside the UNHCR offices previously moved on to the organisation’s property. 

This morning, Friday 15 November, police moved in to evict the group occupying the UNHCR premises. When met with resistance, law enforcement authorities used water cannons to bring the crowd under control. Hundreds of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers have been moved from the premises and detained, pending the verification of their documentation. Provincial police spokesperson Mathapelo Peters stated that the majority of the protesting occupants were taken into custody and are currently being detained at a number of police stations across Pretoria.

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