Up to 21,000 independent child migrants from outside South Africa are living in the country, according to a discussion document by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
The report published in February 2009 - Child Migrants with and without Parents: Census-Based Estimates of Scale and Characteristics in Argentina, Chile and South Africa - defines independent child migrants as younger than 18, and who "reside at destination independently of close family".
The upper estimate for local independent child migrants was put at about 250,000, the report said, but acknowledged that "statistical information on children's migration is severely lacking."
The document did not venture into the nationality of international independent child migrants, but Julia Zingu, country director of Save the Children (UK), which works to improve the lives of children, told IRIN that many came from Zimbabwe, with others "walking" from as far as Burundi and Somalia.
In the South African border town of Musina thousands of migrants had lived rough at the show grounds while waiting to apply for asylum seekers' permits. When the authorities closed the facility earlier this year, Save the Children had to accommodate about 700 child migrants.
Zingu said international independent child migration was reaching "epidemic proportions", and the child migrants were arriving in a country where 8 million of the 18 million children survived on child grants.
The introduction of special permits for adult Zimbabwean migrants, which allowed them to stay for 90 days and work, had not addressed the plight of Zimbabwe's child migrants.
"The flaw within the system is that children are not supposed to be coming here for work, so if you give them special permits, you are condoning it by saying you accept child labour," she said.
|The flaw within the system is that children are not supposed to be coming here for work, so if you give them special permits, you are condoning it by saying you accept child labour|
Joan van Niekirk, an advocacy and training officer at Childline, a child rights NGO, said the new permit system had made child migrants "possibly more vulnerable, as they are competing [for work] with a larger pool of people who are now legal."
The lack of statistics on international or local independent child migrants hampers the provision of assistance. "Some people say there are 5,000 street children in Cape Town, while others say there are 5,000 street kids nationally, she said.
"What we know is there are a larger number of street kids [in South Africa]; we know there are a larger number of child migrants from Zimbabwe, and we know there are larger numbers of children coming from Mozambique."