Unaccompanied migrant children at risk as funding dries up

2010-06-27 08:57

“South Africa? Not what I expected. This isn’t life.”

Matthew (17) leans against the rickety canvas-covered crate which

he shares with four other boys, a stone’s throw away from the Beitbridge border


“I didn’t think things could get much worse when my dad left us. My

mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He just left.”

Matthew has been in Musina since January, doing odd jobs – washing

trucks, hauling around heavy luggage for border crossers – to try and help his


His voice breaks as he recounts his experiences.

“The police beat us. They come looking for magumagumas – outlaws

who kill and steal.

Sometimes you hear women screaming in the bush. Then the

police come. Since we don’t have passports, they arrest us and beat us.”

Every day between 10 and 20 children like Matthew – many younger –

enter South Africa without adult supervision looking for family or a better


Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, Lawyers for Human Rights’ programme head of

refugee and migrant rights, says at more than R1 000, a Zimbabwean passport is

still unaffordable for most.

“From June the minister of home affairs also won’t accept temporary

or emergency travel documents.

You must have a passport. Travelling legally

becomes more difficult again, forcing people underground,” says Ramjathan-Keogh.

“They risk their lives,” says Mickael Le Paih, the mission head of

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) about children who cross the treacherous Limpopo

river and perilous bush.

From January to May, MSF treated 128 cases of rape – two-thirds

women or girls. MSF doctors deal with at least one rape case a day.

Children suffer the most, says Professor Lesiba Matsaung, pastor at

the United Reformed Church and founder of the boys shelter in Nancefield,


Once Zimbabwean children cross over the border unaccompanied, the

department of social development (DSD) becomes legally responsible for


About 50 unaccompanied Zimbabwean children live on Musina’s

streets, but even those who have found refuge at the shelter face an uncertain

future as donor funds dry up.

The church invited Zimbabwean kids off the streets in 2008,

offering food and refuge in a garage. Not a perfect solution, but several

humanitarian NGOs and donors joined forces to improve facilities.

The Christian Women’s Ministry Shelter for boys is still the only

registered children’s shelter in town, housing 150 to 250 boys daily.

Girls who don’t disappear into domestic or farm work stay with

women who have survived sexual violence at the church, which struggles to raise

funds for the women’s shelter.

According to Jacob Matakanye, who co-founded the Musina Legal

Advisory Office with Matsaung in 1988, the children haven’t been placed in the

shelter legally. He says it is inappropriate that girls stay with traumatised


“But nobody can say we should stop. DSD doesn’t even have a shelter

for local kids.”

Some 50 children are staying in the shelters indefinitely to attend


The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save

the Children gave money for a dormitory, food and education for the boys.

Save the Children pays 15 workers’ salaries.

But in spite of continued crisis, funding is now drying up.

Funding crisis

From next week Save the Children’s funding dwindles from more than

R50 000 per month, plus additional food, to just R10 000 per month.

Matsaung doesn’t know how they will be able to buy food.

This follows the scaling down of 30 Save the Children staff members

in December who had worked to protect children in the streets, on farms and at

the border.

“Just our water and lights bill is R13 000 from the beginning of

the year. What will become of the children if we can’t pay the workers their

stipend? We pray for a miracle,” says Matsaung.

The UNHCR’s regional representative in Pretoria, Sanda Kimbimbi,

would not give details, but said they were unhappy with the shelter’s financial


Matsaung said they were indeed visited by a UNHCR auditor, but

their books are clean.

“The UNHCR promised us the report so we could see what was wrong,

but we never got it. Their allegations are unfounded. They now have other

priorities, like in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.”

But there’s a new UNHCR representative in town, says Matsaung, and

she has told them to submit a funding proposal by Monday, and she will see

what’s possible.

Save the Children and UNHCR said the idea was always to build

capacity in local organisations and government. Now DSD is responsible for the


City Press’ investigation, as well as a report on unaccompanied

children compiled by MSF and leaked this week by a local organisation in the

inter-sectoral task team in Musina, show that DSD doesn’t have the capacity to

fulfil their role.

Capacity constraints

By law, every new child has to be presented to court within 24

hours by a state social worker for legal documents and a court order for

placement. Only then can that child attend school and access government


None of the shelter’s kids have gone through this process – much

less the children who live on the street. The children’s court in Musina says it

hasn’t received a single application from DSD yet.

This means children risk arrest if they leave shelters for medical

care, school or work, because they don’t have legal documents.

Shelter manager and social worker Babongile Mudau also struggles

with local school principals who don’t accept Zimbabwean children without legal


“They make excuses. The children must return to Zimbabwe and get

report cards and letters from their old schools.

When I took documents for some

children, the principal asked how he could know they had not been falsified! He

tested the children in Venda, when they speak Shona…but they’re hungry for

education, and succeeded anyway.”

DSD has only three social workers for this massive workload and

significant backlogs. Two new social workers are starting soon, According to


Meanwhile, the boys shelter hasn’t managed to upgrade facilities to

meet DSD’s minimum standards, but they had to register it anyway. There is no


Provincial Manager of Child Care and Protection Hunadi Moropana

admits they’ve had to compromise a lot, because for two years, the Musina

municipality has refused to give them land for an adequate government shelter.

The municipality told City Press that they don’t have land suitable

for a children’s shelter, but they are busy with a land audit.

City Press’ visit to the shelter revealed insufficient access

control and insecure fencing. Children complained of bullying by older boys.

There is no 24-hour supervision.

According to the MSF report, children complain about attacks at

night and men who drink at a bar across the road and steal from the shelter.

Toilet facilities were insufficient and unhygienic.

The shelter lodged a funding application with DSD in Musina two

months ago, but Moropana says it hasn’t reached her in Polokwane yet.

From the end of this week, the church and shelter will be hard

pressed to feed the children. No-one knows what will happen to the handful of


Save the Children has also been paying the salaries of three

paralegals at the Musina Legal Advice Office (MLAO).

Save the Children’s acting manager Rudzani Ramugondo says the

paralegals do essential work to register new kids and remove them from police


But they won’t have work after this week as Save the Children’s

funding from Unicef and Britain’s Department of International Development


MLAO’s Matakanye says it makes no sense that donors are pulling

back. “They claim they have established networks, but if they withdraw we can’t

sustain the work. Children will suffer.”

MSF’s report, based on their medical work in Musina, was drafted to

prompt an urgent scale-up of aid and has been circulated in the past week among


MSF says it is shocked at humanitarian agencies’ premature

downscaling of their initiatives, when government lacks the capacity to “fulfill

their responsibilities and the crisis alone”

“The fact that actors present in Musina are not meeting children’s

basic need for protection is putting children at risk of detention, separation,

sexual abuse, medical neglect, exploitation and violence every day and this is

completely unacceptable.”

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