’15 million’ people in SA are unregistered, and many are ‘stateless children’
The world is sitting on a time bomb of a growing mass of stateless people who find themselves in destitute and desperate situations in foreign countries.
Immigrants from Malawi hand their documents to traffic officials in Polokwane after being detained.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, every 10-minute, a child is born nationless. So severe is the matter of stateless people in South Africa, that Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) are working closely with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) - commonly known as Doctors Without Borders - to address the plight of those deemed not to belong to any state. They say that about a third of those who are stateless are children. While South Africa has not yet quantified the scale of the crisis of the stateless population within its borders, the World Bank claims that…
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The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that, every 10-minute, a child is born nationless.
So severe is the matter of stateless people in South Africa, that Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) are working closely with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) – commonly known as Doctors Without Borders – to address the plight of those deemed not to belong to any state. They say that about a third of those who are stateless are children.
While South Africa has not yet quantified the scale of the crisis of the stateless population within its borders, the World Bank claims that the country has more than 15 million unregistered people.
Of this figure, 15% are said to be children – stateless at birth.
Says Hélène Caux, UNHCR Southern Africa spokesperson: “An issue of concern to the UNHCR is the entry and treatment of stateless children.
“By definition of their condition, they have no passports and therefore cannot legally travel and have their rights adequately protected. Stateless migrants, including children, are particularly vulnerable to abuses of every form.
“The entire legal and economic life of an individual residing in a foreign country depends on being in possession of a nationality.
“Having no definite legal status and lacking protection, stateless persons become legally invisible, encounter great and often insurmountable difficulties, such as indefinite detention or serial expulsions.”
UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is leading an international crusade – the #I Belong Campaign – to protect people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.
The UN body is determined to end statelessness by 2024 – mobilising every member of the public to sign an open letter and become part of the campaign “to end injustice” by ensuring that stateless people are granted a nationality.
It also delivers life-saving assistance such as shelter, food and water to refugees to safeguard their fundamental human rights.
According to Caux, although South Africa is not yet a party to the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons (CSSP), in 2011 it pledged to accede to it.
The CSSP is an important instrument that provides for the guaranteeing of human rights for stateless migrants – establishing an internationally recognised status for them.
Liesl Muller of the LHR Statelessness Unit’s Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme describes stateless people as “foreign nationals in every country in the world”.
“This is because they are not considered to be citizens by any country in the world. The UNHCR’s latest estimate is that a third of them are children.
“Actual figures of stateless people are difficult to confirm because they are not officially counted in a census to assist them obtain access to a nationality, in a country where they have strong social, economic and family links.
“The problem is that there are no official figures,” says Muller.
While she has welcomed the department of home affairs’ latest policy shift to do away with the requirement for travelling unaccompanied children to produce unabridged birth certificates upon entering the country, Muller says government “needs to count and plan for stateless persons in South Africa”.
Muller: “It will most likely make it easier for single parents to travel with their children.
“Requiring additional vetting at the border by requiring a birth certificate is unnecessary additional bureaucracy, which does not benefit the child, but discourages tourism.
“The requirement for a birth certificate at the border was presumably to ensure that both guardians give consent for travel across international borders. A common international practice is to allow sole guardians to travel with their children without the consent of the other biological parent – if the same parent does not hold guardianship.
“If there are two guardians, both parents have to give consent. In both cases, the birth certificate is not a reliable way of determining who the guardian is, which means that the birth certificate is irrelevant in determining whether the adult with the child is entitled to allow the child to cross a border. This should be done at visa stage.”
The lack of a passport, says Caux, is “a severe obstacle to the establishment of one’s nationality”.
“One may assume that a child travelling with a passport had been registered at birth and issued a birth certificate,” she adds.
The difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement, are among several challenges stateless people daily go through.
Working in collaboration with organs of civil society, government and other UN agencies, the UNHCR focuses on identification, prevention, reduction and protection of stateless people.
The agency has summed up causes of statelessness as being due to:
Wars and armed conflict often having been behind people fleeing from countries of their birth.
Gaps in nationality laws, which if not carefully written and correctly applied, may lead to the exclusion of some people.
The emergence of new states and changes in borders.
Being stateless – a personal account
For 29-year-old Zimbabwean-born Primrose Moyo and her two children Nosipho and Ayanda, being stateless has been an uphill battle for survival in South Africa.
In a video produced by Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) (available to watch above) to deepen public understanding on what those who are stateless go through, Moyo – a domestic worker – has described her journey since arriving with her parents in the country in 1998 and being disallowed to complete schooling.
“I arrived in South Africa with my parents but stopped schooling in Grade 11. I could not proceed to matric because I had no documents like an identity or a birth certificate.
Primrose Moyo with her two daughters Nosipho (front) and Ayanda, showing their South African birth certificates acquired through the ruling of the Children’s Court.
“This made me so sad because at the time I was clever at school.
“My teacher used to tease me by remarking on why I was in the class because I knew that I would not be able to sit for exams,” said Moyo.
According to LHR attorney Liesl Muller – despite having been born in Zimbabwe – Moyo was neither registered in that country as a citizen nor documented in South Africa.
Explained Muller: “To be documented as a citizen, one of the legal requirements in South Africa is to produce a birth certificate in a country in which you were born.
“She remains unregistered in Zimbabwe and in South Africa because of that legal technicality.”
Moyo’s registration difficulties had a ripple effect on South African-born Nosipho and Ayanda, who would not be accepted at any local school without documentation.
Moyo: “I could not register them in any school due to lack of documents. With my mother, myself and my two kids being undocumented, we faced a crisis of identity.
“A legal intervention by my employer Sophia Welz through the Children’s Court eventually led to Nosipho and Ayanda being registered as South African citizens and being able to attend school.
“I owe the people that helped my children. If I did not have Sophia, the children would today be sitting at home.”
Welz recalled how she struggled to find Nosipho a school. “When I wanted to find a school for Nosipho, I was told she could not even put a foot in the door because she was undocumented.
“I remember the stress this had on her (Primrose’s) face. What was I going to do with a child that had no access to the world and could not get a matric certificate due to being disallowed to start Grade 1.
“It has been a long journey because Primrose is still unregistered. We are happy to have her because she knows how to fight for her children. Nosipho’s first day in school uniform was magic.”
Said former Constitutional Court Judge Johann Kriegler of Moyo’s experience: “To deny a person access to education is unforgivable and unconstitutional.
“By virtue of existence in South Africa, every child is entitled to free primary and secondary education. No child should be turned away from school because of not having an identity document. This experience demonstrates the enormous deprivation that stateless people go through.”