South Africa

In South Africa, few comforts await children fleeing Zimbabwe

© UNICEF South Africa/2009/Hearfield
UNICEF is helping to deal with the challenges caused by congestion in South African schools faced with taking in large numbers of Zimbabwean children.

By Yvonne Duncan

MUSINA, South Africa, 2 March 2009 – Gift Dube (not his real name) was 11 when his father abandoned the family and his mother died. Six years later, he is still on his own in the South African border town of Musina, where thousands of Zimbabweans have joined him as economic crises and a cholera outbreak force a massive migration from their country.

Gift has managed to eke out a bare existence, roaming the streets of the town with a band of unaccompanied children. He yearns for an easier life and a night without hunger.

“All I want is to eat some nice food and to go to school,” he says. “I also miss my mother.”

Unaccompanied children left to cope

The journey to South Africa is fraught with all the dangers of illegal border crossing. Many children, especially girls, are at the mercy of bus operators, truck drivers and traffickers who smuggle them into the country.

© UNICEF SOUTH AFRICA / 2009/Williams
During a January 2009 visit, UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman talks with a Zimbabwean mother and her young child at the ‘showgrounds' in the South African border town of Musina.

UNICEF’s community-based partners say children as young as five years of age make the journey. They are usually in the company of teenaged friends or family members, but sometimes they get separated and are left to cope on their own. Those who arrive unaccompanied typically have no form of documentation, making it difficult for them to obtain asylum.

Arriving children gather at the Musina ‘showgrounds’, a dusty space in the centre of town, along with thousands of other asylum seekers. They camp out in the open air, exposed to the weather and without water or sanitation facilities. Here, they wait for the formal recognition by South African authorities that will allow them to stay in the country.

Asylum is by no means guaranteed, however. Many children, fearing deportation, avoid the local authorities altogether.

Child protection at Musina

UNICEF estimates that between 1,000 and 2,000 children in Musina need assistance, and the organization has stationed a child protection specialist here to aid unaccompanied minors.

“UNICEF is particularly concerned about the protection of girls,” says UNICEF South Africa Chief of Child Protection Stephen Blight. “Many are at high risk of abuse, particularly those who are without family care or whose lack of documentation makes them vulnerable to exploitation.”

To help protect these children, UNICEF is strengthening documentation and registration procedures for them. It is also working closely with Save the Children to ensure that 13 drop-in centres established in and around Musina are child-friendly and equipped with caregivers,

In addition, UNICEF is working to address congestion in schools such as Bonwa-Udi Primary, which has enrolled about 100 displaced Zimbabwean children seeking an opportunity to continue their education. UNICEF is providing mobile classrooms to help accommodate them.

In the end, the aim of these and other efforts is to help realize some measure of hope for vulnerable children like Gift.



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