Refugees struggle to access social grants

Mary-Anne Gontsana
Although refugees are now eligible to receive the social grants offered by the South African government, many face administrative challenges in applying for these grants.

“Life is hard and very difficult.” Eunice Runeni has a 13-year-old son who suffers from cerebral palsy and to take care of him she used to receive assistance from the government in the form of a Care Dependency Grant.

But after receiving her work permit and starting to work as a care worker in 2011, this grant was effectively stopped. She says this has made her life extremely difficult because she cannot afford her son’s medical expenses.

Marcel Mulombo, welfare desk manager at the Scalabrini centre which cares for the welfare of migrants, said this was a normal process. “Once a person obtains a work permit that means the person is no longer under protection as a refugee by the South African government.”

Runeni said she came to South African in 2009 because her son was transferred from a hospital in Zimbabwe to one in Cape Town. Her husband had been living in South Africa since 2007 and had refugee status. It took her almost a year for them to get the care dependency grant for their child. “They first checked whether my asylum status and my husband's refugee status was valid, then I had to go to the hospital where my son was being treated to get a letter. I was then told that I had to go to my son’s school and get a letter from them. It was quite a difficult and long process but I finally received it. At the time the grant was R500 a month.”

Mulombo said refugees currently qualify to apply for grants for older persons, the disability grant, care dependency grant, foster child grant, child support grant, grant-in-aid and the social relief of distress grant.

Last year amendments to the Social Assistance Act 2004 were passed and put into effect on 1 April 2012. These amendments extended eligibility for social assistance to refugees living in South Africa, allowing allowing them access to the older persons grant and the child support grant. As long as refugees maintained their legal status, they were eligible for social assistance grants. This also includes the children of refugees. However, if the parent or primary caregiver of a child ceases to be a refugee under South African law, then they were no longer eligible to receive a social assistance grant regardless of whether they met the requirements of the means test or other criteria.

Mulombo said that although amendments extending grant access are a great achievement, actual applications for grants for refugees had been a “huge challenge”.

Using the Child Support Grant as an example he pointed out that the South African Social Service Agency (SASSA) officers were not able to distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers. This is important because only refugees are eligible for state support. According to Mulombo:

“Some refugees’ children do not have birth certificates (this is often because they lost them while fleeing their home country) and officials ask them to provide such documents for the grant; some children do not have the same surname as their parents and an official from SASSA questioned the paternity. The ID book is another barrier in accessing the grant as the Department of Home affairs does not issue the refugee their ID on time".

“SASSA also has to verify with Home Affairs whether the parent or care-giver is a qualified refugee. This process takes a long time as Home Affairs is very slow in responding to the verification of refugee status. Therefore, a refugee has to wait for months before receiving the grant,” said Mulombo.

Runeni is currently working at People Against Suffering Oppression and Poverty (PASSOP) and works with 51 disabled children. Five of them have not received their grants yet despite their parents having applied as far back as 2011.

“I have heard many stories from close friends about the struggles they face in applying for their grants. Sometimes they get it and then the other times they don’t, or they give you a lesser amount. I am trying the best that I can to take care of my son, but it is tough,” said Rueni.

Mulombo also noted that he had escorted a client with a deaf child who was trying to apply for her disability grant to SASSA but when the application was rejected no reasonable explanation was provided by anyone at SASSA and they were simply referred from person to person with no one able to explain why deafness was not considered a disability. Grant applicants have a legal right to appeal decisions on their grants but it appears that information on this right is not always disseminated to clients by SASSA front-line staff.