SA refugee laws allow for separation of families

To mark World Refugee Day, African immigrants marched to Parliament demanding the re-opening of the Refugee Reception Centre in Cape Town. Photo by Mzi Velapi

The physical and inhumane separation of children from their families by US authorities has received harsh criticism around the world but a closer look at South Africa’s refugee laws show that they have the same result.

Cape Town, South Africa

Both South Africa and the United States of America represent lands of opportunity and hope for people fleeing from the violence, poverty, or corruption of their homelands.

While the two countries have to turn away thousands of asylum seekers every year, the U.S. has recently fallen under intense scrutiny due to an extremely harsh policy of forcefully separating children from their families.

In April, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the controversial “zero-tolerance” for illegal entry into the U.S., citing a 203 percent increase in illegal border crossings from 2017 to 2018, and a 37 percent increase from February to March alone.

Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order that halted this policy, but over 2,300 children are already being held in detention centers while their parents await prosecution according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Dr. Loren Landau, a research chair for the African Centre for Migration & Society, said what has happened in the United States is part of a global shift in how citizens define and treat non-citizens. “While people entering another country or community have always been seen both as potential threats and resources, those reactions stemmed from a recognition of a common humanity,” Landau said. “What is now occurring is a response which dehumanises people – which allows us to treat them both outside the law and outside of any sense of a shared future or values.”

Dr Kenneth Miller, a psychologist and writer, published an article in Psychology Today that states, “The most brutal government and militias know that to devastate parents and traumatise children, don’t allow them to communicate with each other, don’t hint at the possibility of reunification.”

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According to Miller prolonged separation can give children “toxic stress”, listing recurrent nightmares, mental regression, appetite loss, and dangerous coping methods as potential results from this kind of abuse.

Family unification is important to Americans and South Africans alike, and while America is gaining national attention for the brutality, there are government policies in South Africa that are keeping migrant families separated without an end in sight.

According to a report conducted in 2017 by Scalabrini, a centre in Cape Town that offers development and welfare programmes to migrant communities in Cape Town, the Refugees Act allows for “an unaccompanied child who appears to qualify for refugee status, to claim asylum through the intervention of the Children’s Court.”

However, the report also points out “this only applies to unaccompanied children who are found in circumstances indicating a need for care,” and “It further assumes that all unaccompanied children reach a social worker, and it places statutory duties on social workers which the latter are often not aware of.”

Germain Ntambue, director of Voice of Africans for Change, an organisation fighting for refugee rights in South Africa, said, “I have one child living back home in the DRC. I am a holder of an asylum seeker permit and the document does not give me ways to leave South African borders.”

Refugees are frustrated with the lack of communication from the South African Department of Home Affairs, said Ntambue. The DHA was mandated to reopen the Cape Town Refugee Centre by the end of March but has not.

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“I do blame the South African government since the Department of Home Affairs can’t follow the procedure to issue first refugee status then a residence permit. I have been in the country for nearly 12 years,” Ntambue said. He told Elitsha that if one parent attains refugee status in South Africa their spouse may not, meaning the family has to be separated.

James August came to Cape Town from the DRC to be with his mother when he was just a teenager. He has faced obstacles that have made finding a decent quality of life nearly impossible. “I’m not working, I’m not studying, I don’t have the papers,” he said. “What will be my future?”

Without formal identification from South Africa, refugees do not have access to hospitals, the education system, the labour system, and more.

Martin Bauwens, a South African Refugee Lawyer, told Elitsha that attaining residency is a complex procedure. He said that out of all applicants, just about 45 percent are recognised, and the other 55 percent are either rejected or pending appeal. “There are people pending appeal for more than a decade,” he said. “That’s where the backlog is.”

Dr. Landau said that the greater challenge in South Africa is that even people who have every reason to claim and be granted asylum are not able to secure the status. “This leaves them in a limbo where none of the rights – to family, to residence, to work — are certain,” Landau said.

 

 

 

 

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