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Do 'vast numbers' of refugee and migrant children rely on SA social services?

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On World Refugee Day 2016, the Daily Maverick published an article written by social worker Talia-Jade Magnes, outlining what she described as the rather “bleak reality of migrants and their children in South Africa”.

In the piece, Magnes compared South Africa’s refugee children problem to the case of three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi, the photograph of whose tiny drowned body made world headlines in September 2015. Magnes claimed that, among other concerns, in South Africa “[a] vast number of these refugee and migrant children end up at the door of our social services department and are placed in children’s homes and foster care.”

Magnes, who works with child protection and adoption service Impilo, told Africa Check that her statement was based on data that had been collected for an event a few weeks earlier, and which had been obtained “from about four of our networking organisations, and we had about 150-200 undocumented children. That’s in a very small area of only four service providers. So we can only guess that there are thousands of undocumented kids living within our borders."

But are disproportionate numbers of these foreign-born migrant children and refugees – documented or undocumented, accompanied or unaccompanied – really winding up as beneficiaries of either State or non-governmental social services as she claims? The available data indicates that this is not the case.  

Counting the international migrant community

Census takers record the first baby born at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto on October 10, 2011. Photo: AFP/Alexander Joe
Census takers record the first baby born at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto on October 10, 2011. Photo: AFP/Alexander Joe

The 2011 Census listed the number of international or foreign-born migrants in South Africa at 2,199,871, of which 278,267 were children under the age of 19.

However in the 2016 Community Survey, which is not as extensive as the Census but seeks to update information in between censuses, there were 1,578,541 people living in South Africa who were born outside of the country, 175,709 of whom were under 19. This is a difference of around 100,000 children.

The Community Survey report notes that the drop in number is unlikely due to a drop in immigration: It noted that “[f]fewer numbers of immigrants in CS 2016 data may highlight instilled fear of disclosure of one’s origin.”

StatsSA has previously told Africa Check that the 2011 Census would have allowed for such discrepancies. A Post Enumeration Survey is conducted to address undercounted groups, and the statistical body also told Africa Check it was unlikely that numbers of international immigrants in South Africa would have changed significantly since the Census. To allow for comparison, this report will use both 2011 and 2016 figures.  

Accessing social grants

Lizette Berry, a senior researcher at the Children’s Institute at the University of Cape Town, explained to Africa Check that the Department of Social Development’s mandate to provide social welfare services ranges from grants and food parcels to child protection services and alternative care services, such as foster care and children’s homes, as well as services for the most vulnerable in the population, which includes the elderly and the disabled.

Although the State is ultimately responsible in terms of its constitutional and legal obligations, to monitor and regulate the delivery of social services to all children, there are several parallel welfare systems in existence, including those run by the department of social development, the non-profit or non-governmental sector, faith-based organisations, and also private individuals (such as those who provide foster care), all of whom may or may not receive varying levels of subsidies from the state.  

The South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) provides monetary grants to poor and vulnerable South African citizens. Foreign-born migrant children who are registered as refugees or have permanent residence can also access these grants.

Grants that are applicable to minor children are the care dependency grant, the foster child grant, and the child support grants. Berry explains that children placed in children’s homes are considered “wards of the state” and are not entitled to social grants.

Stanley Malange, manager for strategic monitoring at SASSA, provided Africa Check with the latest data available on foreign-born children receiving social grants.

Malange noted that, as at the end of March 2016, there were 28,677 children with permanent resident status and 15,875 with refugee status who were in receipt of social grants for the fourth quarter of the 2015/16 financial year – a total of 44,552 children.

Depending on which survey’s data is used, this figure represents between 16% (Census 2011 figures) and 25,4% (Community Survey 2016) of the total population of international migrant children under the age of 19.

According to SASSA, during the same period 12,529,526 South African citizens accessed these same grants – approximately 57% of the South African population under the age of 19. Foreign-born migrant children represented just 0,3% of total grantees, of the three child grants provided by the state.

Although this number only accounts for foreign-born migrant children with permanent resident or refugee status, the data clearly shows that it is a minority of documented foreign-born migrant children who end up “at the door of social services”, and that foreign-born migrants do so in much smaller proportions than South African nationals.  

Foster care and child and youth care centres

Zimbabwean refugees at the Central Methodist Chruch in Johannesburg in a 2008. Photo: AFP/ Lionel Healing

Magnes’ additional claim regarding migrant and refugee children being placed in foster care (a child place in the care of foster parents by order of the court, and eligible for SASSA’s Foster Care Grant) is also not supported by SASSA’s data. In the period reviewed, only 629 of a total of 470,019 foster care grants were accessed by children listed as permanent residents – with just 28 additional foster care grants for those recorded as refugees.

Marilize Ackermann from the Scalabrini Centre in Cape Town told Africa Check that although the placement of children in the foster care of recognised refugees or asylum seekers was not limited by law, in practice this rarely happened. The Scalabrini Centre is currently involved in a study to see why this is so. Ackermann added that children placed in the care of recognised refugees were able to access the foster care grant, but that asylum seekers did not qualify.

Data on children placed in children’s homes or “child and youth care centres” (CYCC) is a little more challenging to determine, because while undocumented migrant children cannot access social grants they can potentially access assistance from care centres run by NPOs, which deal with all children both local and foreign-born. Berry confirmed that there is no official centralised data collection system from the mix of state, NPO and faith-based children’s services.

However a joint study on unaccompanied and separated foreign children in the care system in the Western Cape, conducted by researchers from the Scalabrini Centre and the law faculty at University of the Western Cape, which looked at 50 child and youth centres in the Western Cape, found that foreign children in that province “represented approximately 4% of the children in residential care during the research period”. This proportion is comparable to the province’s total percentage of foreign-born residents, which was 4,4% in 2011 and 3,1% according to the 2016 data. The Western Cape has the second-highest numbers and proportion of foreign-born residents, after Gauteng.

Ackermann, who was one of the study’s authors, told Africa Check that foreign children were “not overwhelmingly present in the care system”, adding that this has been confirmed by subsequent (as-yet unpublished) surveys of child and youth care centres in Gauteng and Limpopo.  

These findings would indicate that Magnes’ claim about foreign-born migrant children and refugees entering child and youth care centres is, also, overstated.

However Ackermann clarified that the ability to obtain necessary help “depends invariably on [a child’s] documentation status”, saying that the studies also found “institutional barriers to accessing the child protection system exist and often, child protection agencies, courts and [child and youth care centres] were reluctant to take on cases of undocumented children.”

This is in contravention of South Africa’s Children’s Act, which stipulates these services should be equally available to all children, irrespective of their nationality and documentation status.

Lack of documentation hampers access – and it extends beyond social services

“The more legal you are, the less you would be in need of social services”, says Luke Lamprecht, child development and protection specialist from the Johannesburg Child Advocacy Forum. Lamprecht told Africa Check that undocumented children faced significantly greater difficulties accessing social services when a child does not hold any formal legal status in the country.

According to a 2015 guide on “Unaccompanied and Separated Foreign Children”, produced by the Legal Resources Centre and the Scalabrini Centre, South Africa is a signatory to international conventions that guarantee the state will protect and provide assistance to all children, irrespective of their nationality and documentation status. These include the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Convention on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The LRC guide says that these international obligations are incorporated into South African national law, adding, “it is extremely important to note that the Children’s Act applies equally to all children within South Africa’s borders. The Act makes no distinction between local and foreign children precisely because child protection should be approached in the same manner for all children.”

In practice, Ackermann says, “the lack of a valid identification document often bars access”. As Magnes also notes in her article, this can become even more critical when undocumented minor migrants reaches their majority, writing that “undocumented children who are protected as children are effectively discarded as they become adults”.

Conclusion: small number of migrant children rely on social services

Magnes’ claim that vast numbers of migrant and refugee children wind up accessing social services, or have to be placed in foster and children’s homes, is not backed up by data from either social services or recent studies on residential child and youth care centres.

If anything, it indicates that refugees and foreign-born migrant children access such resources in proportion with the general population of international migrants (in the case of children’s homes) or in significantly lower numbers and proportions (for social services).

However, as access to social services is directly affected by the documentation status of migrant and refugee children, and the number of undocumented migrants living in South Africa is unknown, these figures would exclude undocumented refugee and migrant children who may need some form of social assistance.


Additional interviews by Gopolang Makou

Edited by Tanya Pampalone and Nechama Brodie


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