South Africa’s stateless children: ‘I thought I would be shot’

According to the World Bank, in 2017 there were approximately four million migrants in South Africa. Of those, 309,000 were refugees or asylum seekers.

Save the Children estimates that at least 30 percent of the refugees and migrants who enter South Africa are children. Many of them are unaccompanied and undocumented, the highest proportion globally.

According to a 2019 study by the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, an advocacy group for refugees and migrants, seven out of every 10 foreign children in state care in South Africa are undocumented – they have no birth certificate, identification papers or passport. Many have never had their births registered.

These children are at risk of becoming stateless, meaning no country acknowledges them as citizens.

On a day-to-day basis, they have difficulty going to school and accessing healthcare and public services.

In the first of a four-part series exploring the lives of undocumented child migrants and refugees in South Africa, Obert Makaza, 20, shares his story.

‘The day I decided to cross, I crossed running’
Obert Makaza cannot remember if he was seven or nine years old when he risked his life to cross the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa, alone and on foot.

Now aged 20, he says all he can be sure of is that he had not yet turned 10 when he navigated the Limpopo riverbed that separates the two countries. It had taken him some time to build up the courage, he recalls.

He had caught a train from Harare with other children he met on the streets, but became separated from them when they reached Beitbridge, a border town in the province of Matabeleland South in Zimbabwe.

Ninety percent of refugees and migrants cross into South Africa via the country’s northern border, and Beitbridge is the busiest crossing.

“I stayed there for two weeks before I decided to cross,” he says. “And on the day that I decided to cross, I crossed running.”

Obert clearly remembers the sound of gunfire as he ran; the sound of his feet and the bullets on the loose sand.

“I thought I was going to get shot, because they did shoot. But I don’t know if they were shooting at other people or at me because there was all sorts of chaos.”

The border between South Africa and Zimbabwe is always chaos, he adds.

“I just ran. When I got to the South African side I ran to the taxi rank. There someone gave me a lift to Musina.”

A place to call home
South Africa’s northern-most town, Musina, is a popular entry point to South Africa. On the pavements, umbrellas cast long shadows across an assortment of wares laid out by informal traders in the sweltering heat. As the sun sets, some cross back into Zimbabwe, returning the next day to continue trading.

The N1 highway, which cuts through the centre of town, is the main route connecting Zimbabwe to the bustling border town and the rest of the country.

Leading south, the road eventually ends at the entrance to Cape Town’s upmarket luxury mall and tourist destination, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront. Just 2 kilometres (1.2 miles) away is the Homestead Projects for Street Children, which runs a number of intervention projects for young people. One of these is a care home for homeless and undocumented minors at risk of statelessness.

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