Children of immigrants face expulsion from Eastern Cape schools

“This decision will ruin our children” says woman from Somalia

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Photo of a school building
Zanoxolo Primary in Motherwell, Port Elizabeth, where the principal says the school will struggle to get resources allocated for children who are not registered in line with the Eastern Cape Department of Education’s requirements. Photo: Joseph Chirume

Hundreds of immigrant learners attending public schools in the Eastern Cape may soon find themselves turned away after a decision by the provincial department in March.

In May, the Eastern Cape Education Department ran adverts in print media urging parents to submit either a South African identity document, a valid passport or a study permit to their children’s schools.

The advert stated that it was ‘an urgent call to all schools, the schools’ management teams, school governing bodies, parents and all local school communities, to assist principals in making sure that all learners’ valid identity, passport or study permit numbers are submitted and confirmed in schools across the province.’

‘There are schools with a concerning number of learners without valid identity, passport or study permit numbers in the prescribed national SASAMS system.This system is, among other things used to allocate teachers and to determine the allocation and transfer of funds to schools. As indicated above, the allocation of these funds only consider number of learners whose IDs, passport or study permit numbers were correctly captured and valid.’

The request was communicated to school principals who in turn wrote letters of demand to all parents to furnish the schools with these documents.

This has had a chilling effect on parents whose children do not posses any of these documents.

Ali Yusuf Osman, 52, of Uitenhage said he felt powerless.

Originally from Somalia, Osman sells fresh fruit and vegetables in the CBD. He has two children at secondary school level and three minors attending primary school.

“I have a grade ten daughter and grade nine son learning at Uitenhage Secondary School. They brought the letter to show me. I was shocked. All my children were born here at Uitenhage hospital. I have been here for 19 years.”

Osman said the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has let him down badly.

“I have been at Home Affairs several times and all attempts to get the permits for my children have been fruitless,” he said.

Principal of the high school, Mark Williams, said, “The fact that these pupils are registered with us, means they will write all examinations. None will be barred from examinations.”

Another worried parent is Sowda Muhammed, also of Somalia and a shopkeeper in the Uitenhage CBD.

She said her 18-year old daughter in grade ten was heartbroken when she was given the letter by her class teacher.

“We arrived in South Africa from Somalia in 2003. We are using refugee permits. We do not have permanent resident permits. My daughter likes her education. Now, with this issue I can see she is traumatized. She had hopes that with good education, our problems would be eased. This decision will ruin our children,” she said.

Sowda had other bad news last week. She said that a militia force ransacked her parents’ home in Somalia and took 38 people captive.

A Zimbabwean mother whose son is in grade three said she has had to transfer him from a government school in November last year after the principal had asked him for a permit.

She said her son was in grade two at Zanoxolo Primary School in Motherwell. She has now taken her to a private Christian school, but she is struggling to pay the monthly fees.

Thembinkosi Pikelela, principal of Zanoxolo, said “As a principal, I like to see children getting educated. However, we are facing problems with parents who give us wrong information. You will find out that information supplied to the school is different from what the parents gave the Department of Home Affairs.”

He also said that when a child did not have valid papers, the school could not get resources from the education department for that child, putting the school under financial pressure.

DHA spokesperson Thabo Mokgola said, “All students should have permits. Asylum seeker permits are allocated on a personal basis. We do not apply it collectively. This opens the doors for those with valid reasons to bring their children to get valid permits. We then investigate and ascertain whether that individual has a valid reason to get a permit.”

Mokgola said, “If a child is born in the country and turns 18 years that child automatically qualifies to become a South African.The parents should approach their nearest DHA offices with the birth certificate of the child and their papers.”

Liesl Fourie, an attorney at the Refugee Rights Centre and Centre for Law in Action says that the Constitution provides all children with the right to basic education, which includes primary and high school. The admission policy of a School Governing Body (SGB) must be in compliance with the Constitution, national and provincial legislation and provincial regulations. If it is not, then the education department can be requested to intervene and place the child in a suitable school, regardless of the SGB’s policy.

The admission requirements of immigrant children to schools depended on whether they were asylum seekers or refugees or children whose parents were immigrants.

Somali children of asylum seekers or refugees automatically receive the same status as their parents. The right to study in South African schools does not depend on a special study permit. Only a birth certificate, either from their country of origin or a handwritten unabridged South African birth certificate, copies of the parents’ permits or refugee ID, and a copy of the child’s clinic card or other proof of immunisation.

According to Fourie, in March the Eastern Cape’s education department issued an instruction that all children have to be identified on the SA SAMS system with their own unique identity number. The problem is that the handwritten unabridged birth certificates issued to immigrant children in South Africa does not contain an ID number for the child, making it impossible for the schools to properly register these children on SA SAMS.

Asylum seeker and refugee children of a school-going age are however old enough to receive their own status permits. To obtain one, the parents will have to go to the refugee reception office where they registered and which has their physical file, and apply for a permit for the child to be added to the parents’ status.

Unfortunately, this can result in delays and severe financial difficulty. The parents and children often have to travel to the Musina, Marabastad or Durban refugee reception offices to obtain such certificates. People often have to go back to these offices on numerous occasions before they are assisted, explained Fourie.

The asylum seeker or refugee child’s permit contains a unique reference number that the schools may use to register the children on the SA SAMS system.

No child may be refused admission because their parents do not have the necessary documentation. Principals have to admit these children provided that they reside in the school’s area and then allow the parents an opportunity to obtain the required documentation. If it appears that the parents, for some or other reason, cannot obtain these documents, then the principal, the school governing board and even the department has to assist the parents to obtain the documentation, while the child continues with his or her schooling.

Some Zimbabwean children on the other hand, have fallen through the cracks in the system, Fourie says. Many Zimbabweans came to South Africa as asylum seekers, but by agreement between the South African and Zimbabwean governments, they now receive a special permit.

Older Zimbabwean children are supposed to have been issued these special permits. They are permitted to study in South Africa without any additional requirements.

Zimbabwean children born after their parents received asylum status were not issued with their own special permits and now require a study permit to be admitted into schools. The application process for a study permit is tedious and expensive. There are also a lot of requirements that the parents have to comply with before such a permit will be issued.

Another complication according to Fourie is that such applications can only be done online through VFS (Visa & Permit Facilitation Centres), but the VFS offices do not assist applicants in the actual application process.

Many parents only have access to the internet via their cell phones which complicates the application process even further, resulting in many of them aborting the application or the application being rejected and the child not being issued with a study permit.

Extraordinarily, Fourie says that principals who allow these children into their schools without a study permit could be found guilty of a criminal offence and fined in their personal capacity up to an amount of R5,000 per child that does not have a study permit.

TOPICS:  Education Immigration

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