The human tragedy of child-travel laws in SA

2015-07-27 08:00
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba is standing by SA’s new child-travel laws. Picture: Gallo Images/The Times/Moeletsi Mabe

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba is standing by SA’s new child-travel laws. Picture: Gallo Images/The Times/Moeletsi Mabe

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We were really not trying to traffic my young relatives, whose names translate from Arabic as Faith and Lion. They were coming home for Eid.

Home is Cape Town, although the children have grown up in Saudi Arabia, where my cousin, their dad, teaches. Their mum is from Cape Town and lives in Jeddah. 

No sooner had they landed than the children were bundled on to a plane and deported. No Eid. Floods of tears. They got caught in onerous new child-travel regulations (meant to combat child trafficking), which set up a near-impossible list of requirements for children travelling to or from South Africa. 

The effect on tourists and tourism is well documented – the impact on children who are South African or with South African links is less well known. 

Surely, a law never meant to get children deported before Eid, the Muslim celebration at the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. 

Fact-checking service Africa Check reports that 23 children were believed to be trafficked in the latest information from the department of home affairs. 

Government has claimed an annual figure of 30 000 children as an explanation for the draconian new laws. 

This is Faith’s story.

I can’t name her as she (still) hopes to come and study in South Africa because she loves our Constitution and all it stands for 

We were coming home for Eid. My brother and I were excited to land in Johannesburg with my mum and stepdad en route to our family in Cape Town. But we were stopped because we did not have all the documents for the new laws. Then it turned into a nightmare. 

The one thing I always pray never happens is to see my mother crying. This happened when officials questioned the legitimacy of her relationship to my brother in the immigration centre. They were very angry and refused to look at us. 

We live in Jeddah and for years my mother has tried and failed to get a copy of her birth certificate from home affairs and a passport for my brother, who was born in Saudi Arabia but is entitled to South African nationality. 

I developed a sick feeling in my stomach from sitting there witnessing not only us but several families being interrogated and pushed for documents to prove their family bonds. 

The South African embassy in Jeddah, where we had applied for our visas, didn’t inform us of the changes related to travelling with children. When we asked why they didn’t tell us of the new travelling requirements, they insisted they had been emailed. 

But if they were, why were so many families flying out of Saudi Arabia experiencing the same problem? The airline (Saudia) was also informed of the change and was meant to stop us boarding, but they failed to do so. An airline representative at OR Tambo airport was very rude to the families he was supposed to help. 

We were asked to send an email of my brother’s birth certificate, and my father (who was in Jeddah) did that. 

At first an officer, Patrick Thileppe, said it would be enough, but he consulted a supervisor and changed his mind. Only a commissioned original would do. 

Then my stepdad and mum were told we were “required to return to the country we flew from or be held in a facility similar to a prison”. Sent to prison without trial under false accusations? 

It was so strange to be told so easily that we could be sent to prison, especially when they had earlier told us they could see we were a family and the whole thing was a minor blip that would be solved swiftly. 

Instead, we were put on the next flight out of South Africa, my mother’s land and my granny’s land. All the deported children were crying. 

It wasn’t the fact that we were held in a room for documents or being sent back that was upsetting, although it did contribute greatly to the feeling. It was the underlying abuse of authority that turned the situation into a horror story. 

There were law-abiding procedures that could have been undertaken, but we were played with, yelled at and threatened. 

The one set of laws I’ve always admired is that of South Africa, especially the Constitution. I believe it is built on fairness, equality and freedom. It’s why I want to study law at a university in South Africa. 

However, there was no fairness, equality or sense of justice in that situation. I understand the child-trafficking law is important, but was that not signed in 2013? 

I travelled last year and there were no problems. We were not informed through any official channel that new laws were in place. I felt like the gum someone scrapes off the bottom of their shoe, being so easily dictated to to do one thing or another for my freedom. They were holding my strings; I was their marionette. 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. No human being should be treated like we were.

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