The most difficult decision Mudiwa* made was leaving her little brother behind. Fleeing her older sister’s abusive boyfriend and the prospect of being forced to drop out of school, Mudiwa, 17, decided to run away from home in 2016.
As a 15-year-old, she and three other girls crossed the Limpopo River into South Africa one night. The small group of teenage girls had to evade patrolling soldiers on the border and stay clear of the criminals known to target those crossing the border.
“It was very risky because we would hear stories about crocodiles when you are crossing by the river,” she said. “It was very crazy, but at that time it was the only option that I had.”
“[My sister’s] boyfriend was a little bit abusive because he didn’t want his money to be spent on me and my brother. He only wanted his money to be spent on his child,” Mudiwa explained. “So my sister basically tried to help but he was a bit aggressive. He was too abusive.”
Despite leaving her brother behind, Mudiwa said she made the right decision. “It was a very hard decision to leave [my brother] behind,” she said. She has since returned back to Zimbabwe to go look for him, but was told by neighbours that her sister, the boyfriend and her little brother had moved. No one could tell Mudiwa where they had moved to.
“But I feel very good about my decision. Here I have protection, no one is here to abuse me, people here are always protecting us.”
“Now I can also go to school. I know that when I come home from school, I will find they have cooked something for us to eat. I think it was a very good decision coming here,” she said sitting in the recreation room of the girl’s shelter started by the Christian Women’s Ministry (CWM) Children’s Project in Messina-Nancefield, a township in Musina near the Beitbridge border gate in Limpopo.
‘Unaccompanied and separated’
Musina saw a huge influx of migrants about a decade ago fleeing the economic meltdown in Zimbabwe. As the number of migrants increased, so did the pressure on the small town. In 2008, with the number of unaccompanied children crossing into South Africa at its highest, the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa in Musina set up two shelters for unaccompanied and separated children.
The number of children in the two shelters has since dwindled – so has funding. Jane Phiri, the assistant manager at the girls’ shelter, said it currently houses 15 girls between the ages of 11 and 22. Most of them crossed into South Africa without adult supervision or proper documentation.
Phiri said they had fled abusive households, been orphaned or were pursuing a better future with the prospect of education and regular meals.
Anna Mundanga, the manager at the boys shelter run by CWM Children’s Project, which houses 24 boys, the youngest eight years old, said most of the children face uncertain futures because of their legal status in the country.
“Most of our children we have got here are unaccompanied and separated children, and yes there is a high possibility of them being stateless. Some of them left when there was an economic crisis and their parents, they had never gotten hold of them,” Mundanga said.
The shelters provide food and accommodation to the children and help them gain access to schooling, she added. “Now the challenge is when they turn 18, because the centre is actually registered to look after them until then. So if that child is in school, they get a court order extension up until the age of 21. Then after 21 they cannot stay in any form of a facility because they are now adults.”
In search of an education
Musa* is an exception at the shelter at the age of 22. She set foot in a classroom for the first time when she arrived in South Africa as an orphan. She is currently in grade 11.
After her mother’s funeral, Musa and her three sisters were split up and sent to different families to look after them. It was here, when she was 10 or 11, that Musa was forced to do household chores for the family, including cooking and cleaning.
She was coerced into travelling to South Africa with another young woman to “see how to make money” when she was stopped by the police. Musa said she was terrified and unable to explain to them how or why she ended up in South Africa.
“I was crying I didn’t know how I came here. I didn’t know about the border, I didn’t know many things. I was about to turn 11 when I came here. And then I started school when I came here to the shelter,” she said.
“They asked me, do I want to go to school, and I said, ‘Yes, it’s been my dream. One day I want to see myself wearing a uniform. One day I want to see myself sitting in a class with other children.’ They said I must go to grade 4. I said, ‘I must start at grade 1, I know nothing.’”
Musa said she hoped to go back to Zimbabwe one day to look for her sisters. But for now, her focus is on finishing school.
Undocumented and stateless
Mamboanesu*, 14, fled Zimbabwe with a friend after his mother died in 2016. “I was in a bad condition, struggling in life. When my mother died, I dropped out of school. It was difficult for me,” he said.
As a young teen crossing the border, Mamboanesu said he had never been so scared. They had to evade border patrols and, he said, a lion. But the two boys made it into South Africa safely.
“My life, it has been changed now,” Mamboanesu said. He lives with 23 other boys – his “brothers” – at the CWM Children’s Project, receiving schooling and regular meals.
The Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town released a report last month about migrant children in South Africa, with a focus on Limpopo, Gauteng and the Western Cape. It found that 34% of the 325 children surveyed had no documentation. In Limpopo, 82% of the children surveyed were undocumented.
The report found that 40% of the children were at risk of statelessness and 27% of them were at “considerable risk” of statelessness.
The survey found that the majority of children who had crossed into South Africa from Zimbabwe and stayed put in Limpopo had made the decision on their own to migrate. “The main challenges foreign children face are linked to documentation. The largest proportion of children held no documentation at all, at 34% of all children. This seemed to be especially problematic in Limpopo, where 82% of children were completely undocumented,” the report said.
Risk of deportation
Lotte Manicom, an advocacy officer at Scalabrini, said one of the biggest risks children face when they are stateless is being deported when they turn 18.
“Once they turn 18, they are theoretically at risk of deportation. But as no state considers them a national, they have no state to be deported to. They are in a limbo. As young adults, they cannot hold a legal job, open a bank account or get married,” she said.
“By nature of their plight, there is no way to quantify how many stateless people there are in South Africa. They do not exist on any administrative system. It is impossible, therefore, to say,” Manicom said.
Mudiwa, like many of the children at the two shelters, is aware of her legal status and the implications it might have for her future.
“I want to become an international lawyer because if I’m an international lawyer, I will be able to help the young girls coming through. They don’t have documents and sometimes they are forced to go back. So maybe if they have someone to help them, they have a voice, things would be much better,” she said.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.