Refugees battle for education

The Hout Bay Refugee Community centre in IY.

The xenophobic attacks that rocked Hout Bay and other parts of Cape Town in 2008 may be fading into memory, but for the hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants living in Imizamo Yethu a new challenge has emerged: getting the documents their children need to obtaining the requisite documentation for their children to be educated.

Although the law states that every child has the right to be educated, there are fears that mothers and children who have fled their own countries and are now living in Imizamo Yethu are being denied access to schooling because of the state’s failure to grant them study permits.

As a result, according to Paul Nakwa, of the Hout Bay Refugee Community, asylum seeker and migrant parents are not only unable to get jobs, on account of not having the proper qualifications, but their children are unable to be admitted to schools in and around Hout Bay. There are also cases where children have been admitted to schools, but are unable to write their matric exams without the correct permits.

“I want to thank the Hout Bay community for all they have done for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the past, but we do need their help again in raising awareness about this very serious issue,” Mr Nakwa said.

“One of the problems we experience is that the schools don’t accept the children’s birth certificates, even though they have the right to go to school. I am currently dealing with seven or eight cases like these, but I am sure there are many more people who will come forward.”

One such person is coming forward is Malawian asylum seeker Alice Kaluwa, who has lived in Imizamo Yethu since leaving her unemployment-ravaged homeland in 2013 due to vast unemployment levels.

“I am having sleepless nights because I don’t know whether my daughter, who is in Grade 11, will be able to write matric next year,” she said.

“She is one of the best students at Silikamva High School, but there are other women I know whose children went to school in Hout Bay and were not able to write matric because they did not have the right documents,” she said.

“I worry for my daughter because those women’s children were unable to complete their schooling and could not go to university. In order to survive, they had to get married young, but I don’t want that for my daughter. I want to see her going to university in 2018. I cannot understand why the South African government doesn’t want to help foreign children to be educated.”

The asylum seekers’ plight is not falling on deaf ears, however. On Friday September 23, the Hout Bay Refugee Community engagedmet representatives of the Refugee Rights Clinic at UCT where they raised this issue.
The clinic’s James Chapman said South African law compelled schools to accept pupils. If they didn’t, they could be fined.

This is in terms of the South African Schools Act and the Western Cape education policy. Schools are required to accept pupils, and failing to do so can see them being fined,” Mr Chapman said.

“I think a lot of time there is a breakdown in communication, and schools are not aware of what is expected of them, either the headmasters or the SGBs (school governing bodies). Some schools don’t recognise asylum documents.”

There were also cases where although children of asylum seekers and migrants had been attending school, when it came to sitting their matric exams their documents were not recognised. “These obviously are more urgent cases,” Mr Chapman said.

“The difficulty lies in having the appropriate documentation. Difficulties have also arisen since the closure of the Cape Town Refugee Centre a few years ago. Now people have to be processed in Pretoria and other parts of the country.”
The situation was further exacerbated by asylum seekers having the necessary documentation but the Department of Home Affairs might not recognise that not recognising their children.

Mr Chapman did not wish to speculate on any motivations as to why asylum seekers were being stalled on receiving the requisite documentation, but did not want to speculate on why asylum seekers were experiencing such difficulty getting the documents they needed, but he noted that the Refugees Amendment Bill of 2015 had made “large changes” to the manner in which refugees and asylum seekers were handled by the state.

Critics of the bill say it will secure the deportation of asylum seekers if they fail to apply for refugee status within five days of arriving in the country. Furthermore, applications for asylum will be based on the applicant’s ability to sustain themselves and their dependants with the assistance of family or friends for a period of four months.

However, Mr Chapman said there was hope for asylum seekers such as those in Imizamo Yethu.

“The Refugee Rights Clinic has experienced good success in having children placed at government schools. Very often, once we have met with the schools, they understand that they are constitutionally obligated to take these pupils. It really is a question of communication this.”

Jessica Shelver, spokeswoman for Western Cape Education MEC Debbie Schafer, said foreign nationals needed to comply with the same requirements as South African pupils.

“Parents need to provide a birth certificate for their children, along with an immunisation card and a transfer letter or card from their previous school if they are changing schools. Parents of learners who are foreign nationals must submit a study permit issued by Home Affairs. In the absence thereof, the learner can be admitted if the parents can prove that they have applied for the relevant documentation from Home Affairs,” she said.

With regard to matric exams, the school was responsible for ensuring that it had the required documentation from pupils who had registered to write the National Senior Certificate.

“We will allow the learners to write the NSC exams and we will result them. However, Umalusi (Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training and the body which approves the NSC results) will not provide them with certificates. To pursue any further studies, the learners will be required to be provide certificates.”
Queries to Department of Basic Education spokesperson Elijah Mhlanga had not been answered at the time of going to print.