Many children cross borders into South Africa unaccompanied by adults. Some arrive with their parents and relatives but they later disappear and cannot be traced, according to the findings of the steering committee led by the Department of Social Development.
This was heard during a colloquium on unaccompanied/undocumented migrant children, which is currently underway in Boksburg, Gauteng.
The South African government is leading the three-day colloquium, which seeks permanent and sustainable solutions for unaccompanied and separated migrant children living in South Africa.
The colloquium is being held to create better synergy between government and its social partners, who play a role in the lives of undocumented migrant children, who often go without access to basic services.
The steering committee has established that some migrant families deliberately keep their children away from public life, depriving them of mandatory government protection services such as healthcare, education and other welfare services, which are a Constitutional right in South Africa.
Gaps in protecting unaccompanied children
Helping undocumented children is not without its challenges. Lack of funding to implement policies and limited capacity from frontline government officials are some of the biggest challenges.
The steering committee noted that currently, South Africa has no credible statistics of unaccompanied and separated migrant children living in the country.
Many children remain undocumented, which is of serious concern to South Africa. As and when the children are identified, the Department of Social Development places them in child and youth care centres under the supervision of social workers so that they receive comprehensive social protection until they are reunited with their families.
The inability to document migrant children makes it difficult for government to trace and reunite them with their families because some children leave their countries of origin due to unstable and unbearable conditions. It becomes more difficult when they reach the age of 18 years because they automatically fall out of the child protection system and are then considered as illegal immigrants.
South Africa is a signatory to United Nations Children's Rights Charter (UNCRC) and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of a Child. Both charters and the Children's Act promote the universal rights of children unconditionally.
It is upon these provisions that the Department of Social Development maintains that no child should be discriminated against based on nationality and that children are vulnerable and deserve comprehensive social protection of the family or government, where families are not able to provide such protection.
The Department of Home Affairs has a database in which minor children are registered but there are no specific details indicating that they are minor.
Delegates expressed concern that some of the unaccompanied children are not first received by government when they arrive in the country, hence the need to find mechanisms to work with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which play an important role.
During the deliberations, one participant mentioned that it was always in the best interest of children to be reunited with their families, but it was not always possible because some left their countries for safety in South Africa.
A delegate from Zimbabwe acknowledged that there are many Zimbabwean children living in South Africa. He said as much as efforts must be made to repatriate children to Zimbabwe, it must be borne in mind that some of the circumstances and conditions in that country do not allow children to go back to their country.
The colloquium was attended by officials from various government departments, including Social Development, Home Affairs, Basic Education, Justice and Constitutional Development, as well as representatives from United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children South Africa.
The meeting ends on 19 October 2017.