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Call for Protection of Migrant Children

Wednesday 8 April 2020
The National Interagency Working (NIAWG) group on Unaccompanied, Separated and Migrant Children in South Africa would like to commend the Government of South Africa for its stance towards curbing and reducing the spread of COVID-19. The NIAWG would like to take this opportunity to emphasise that in its response the Government of South Africa should ensure that all children regardless of their country of origin or immigration status are protected and included in light of the unique impact of the declaration of a State of Disaster on vulnerable children.

Such a response would be in line with the South African Constitution, as well as the four main principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which are non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; survival and development of the child; and child participation. 

Every day vulnerable unaccompanied, separated and migrant children - including citizen, migrant, refugee, asylum seeker and stateless children (“USMCs") face unspeakable threats to their safety and well-being even in the absence of a pandemic. For many of these girls and boys, access to basic health care and facilities is extremely limited, while cramped living conditions make social distancing unfeasible. In light of the COVID-19 crisis these children are at heightened risk of abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence amidst intensifying containment measures. 

The NIAWG calls on all concerned stakeholders and authorities to make every effort to prevent any form of harm and discrimination during the State of Disaster. The NIAWG highly commends the measures that government took through the Department of Home Affairs in ensuring that anyone whose permit expires prior to the end of lockdown will not be penalised as long as they present themselves to an RRO within 30 days of the lockdown ending. Including the closure of the RROs to prevent putting refugees and asylum seekers at risk of close confines, for protracted periods and the known efforts to develop remote processing of asylum and refugee documentation. 

It is however, worth to further note that where USMCs are undocumented their vulnerability is increased and their access to basic human rights and services are particularly limited. USMCs in this category are most vulnerable to harm and infection with COVID-19. These children are usually reluctant to seek medical and other assistance due to their lack of documentation for fear of possible arrest, detention and even deportation. Therefore, the inclusion of all USMCs in the Government’s response to COVID-19 is imperative, because if they are not protected and included, the Government’s efforts to flatten the curve is compromised.

This principle should be communicated to all South Africans, including government employees, to avoid any discriminatory sentiments that may undermine the national efforts to fight against the pandemic. It is paramount that all response measures are implemented with the best interest of the child in mind. 

In this period of massive containment and limited movement USMCs, like the majority of children in South Africa, are exposed to heightened risk of violence in the home, being forced to be in close contact with perpetrators of the violence or abuse. It is key that the work of organisations that work to ensure adequate protection of these children are allowed the necessary permission to keep in contact with at risk children. 

Finally, the NIAWG notes that it is undeniable that the spread of COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the income earning capacity of many worldwide, the same impact does not exempt USMCs especially those who are in child headed households. It is therefore imperative that USMCs are included in economic safety net measures that may be introduced to mitigate the effect of loss of income caused by the effects of COVID-19. Leaving this category of our society out of our national response safety nets may necessitate negative coping strategies among these vulnerable members of our societies. Hence, NIAWG emphasises that effective response would and should consider the economic impact of the pandemic on migrant families and USMCs. 

The NIAWG recommends that the Government of South Africa: 
  1. Includes USMCs in its public health response (including screening, testing and treatment); 
  2. Refrains from arresting or detaining any child, particularly USMCs, regardless of their immigration status or lack thereof; 
  3. Ensures that health institutions issues proof of birth in the form of a maternity certificate to all mothers giving birth during this period regardless of level of legal documentation or nationality. 
  4. Ensures that The National Economic Response Plan is inclusive of USMCs to prevent negative coping mechanism which may compromise the Government’s Covid-19 curbing plans. 
  5. Includes USMCs in the Department of Education’s planning and implementation of its plans to negate the effects of school closures. 
  6. Ensures that Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCCs) have adequate resources and space to implement social distancing and or social isolation. 
  7. Extends the refugee and asylum seeker permits of all USMCs in the care of the state automatically for the next 6 months to prevent travelling. 
  8. Ensures that adequate services are in place for children at risk of abuse, neglect and violence. 
Members of the National Inter-Agency Working Group on Care and Protection of USMC: 
  • Save the Children South Africa 
  • Lawyers for Human Rights 
  • Consortium for Migrants and Refugees 
  • Terre Des Hommes