At the age of 15, Nestor Tata watched rebel soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) kill his father and not long afterwards came home from school to find the murdered body of his mother. With no siblings or anyone else to turn to, he took his parents' savings from their hiding place under a mattress, packed a small bag and fled.
“I decided if I stayed, they would kill me too,” he told IRIN. “I took a taxi to Kalemie [in eastern DRC] and then a boat across Lake Tanganyika and then a bus to Lusaka [in Zambia]…I still had no idea where I was going.”
After a month in Zambia and another two months in Zimbabwe, Tata made his way to South Africa where his youth and lack of English got him across the border despite having no documents.
“I arrived here by God,” he said.
But Tata’s troubles were far from over. South Africa’s progressive constitution and laws extend the same protections to unaccompanied minors (the term given to children who cross border without parents or adult care-givers) as to local children, but in practice they face immense bureaucratic hurdles and are often left to fend for themselves.
Although no figures are available, Mmone Moletsale of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that based on reports from their partners, South Africa was receiving an increasing number of such children, but still lacked an efficient system for dealing with them.
The Department of Home Affairs is responsible for issuing the immigration permits and identity documents the children need to attend school or access social services but will not do so unless they have been assigned a social worker by the Department of Social Development and have a Children’s Court order setting out their care arrangements.
“This is where one of the major problems arises,” said Moletsale, explaining that the type of assistance social workers are supposed to provide is not clearly defined and that there are inconsistencies between different government departments about which should come first - documentation or the Children’s Court order.
“Children’s Court, Social Development and Home Affairs all have different standard operating procedures when it comes to unaccompanied minors,” said Samantha Mundeta of Lawyers for Human Rights, who is currently helping 75 such children navigate the maze of conflicting regulations. “There’s a lot of passing of the buck.”
With government social workers in short supply and often reluctant or unsure what to do with unaccompanied minors, most of whom are over the age of 15, Mundeta often resorts to linking them with NGOs like the Refugee Aid Organization (RAO), which has funding from UNHCR to help about 110 migrant and refugee children in Pretoria and Johannesburg with their immediate needs for food, shelter and counselling.
According to Moletsale, Social Development has agreed on the need to better define the role of social workers with regard to unaccompanied children and to work with other government departments to develop one set of procedures for assisting them.
However, Claudia Serra, director of RAO, believes it is not just a dysfunctional system that is working against unaccompanied minors but an unwillingness to view them as deserving of care. “There is a xenophobic element to it, especially when the attitude is, `I’d rather help a South African child’,” she told IRIN.
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Abale Justin, director of the Refugee Children’s Project in Johannesburg, said that the Department of Social Development was always their first port of call when they received an unaccompanied minor in need of a safe place to stay. “They always say the shelters [places of safety] are full but in our experience, most shelters funded by Social Development are not willing to take refugee children, they are giving priority to local children.”
After six months selling sweets on the streets and learning English, Tata started receiving a R500 (US$70) a month stipend from RAO and, at the age of 18, was finally able to start attending school in January. He had also acquired an asylum-seeker permit which put him in a better position than many other unaccompanied minors who have fled poverty rather than war.
“For the migrant children it’s even worse, because if there’s no asylum claim, documenting those children is one of the biggest nightmares,” said Moletsale.
In such situations, UNHCR sometimes assists the government’s International Social Services department to try to trace parents or family members of the children.
“We come across parents clearly saying they don’t have the means to support [the child] so let them remain in South Africa so they can get an education and a better life,” she said. “We grapple with what’s in the best interests of the child. Do we leave them in an institution in South Africa or send them home?”
For orphans like Tata and many other unaccompanied minors who have fled their own horrors in countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, Somalia and DRC, returning home is not an option.
“I just want to study a lot,” he said. “Maybe I can get a better life, maybe I can be an accountant. But it’s very difficult to study because you’re worrying too much about so much stuff, like what to eat.”
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Steven Rwagasore, a 19-year-old refugee from Rwanda who lost both his parents during the 1994 genocide, is two months away from taking his final exams at the same Pretoria school as Tata, but has only got this far through a combination of survival skills and determination. He subsidized his small stipend from RAO by pasting posters on lampposts and selling fruit after school, but when he failed a year he decided to cut back on his working hours and focus on studying.
“I ate two slices of bread and drank water for lunch and budgeted myself R7 for dinner,” he said. “I knew that if I go to school, my life will change.”
Rwagasore wants to become a South African citizen and “contribute something to this economy”, but in order to further his education he will need financial assistance that currently does not exist for unaccompanied children who are no longer minors.
“A lot that came in as unaccompanied minors are now young adults and we have no budget to assist them,” said Serra.