Friday, September 21, 2007

Suffer little children: Child migrants flock to South Africa

Unaccompanied children, an average of 14 years old but sometimes as young as seven, are being drawn to South Africa from neighbouring states in the hope of work and receiving an education, according to report published by Save the Children (UK).

The report, compiled from a survey of 130 undocumented children in South Africa, said "there are sufficiently large numbers of children crossing borders unaccompanied to warrant major concern". An estimated 1,500 underage Zimbabweans entered South Africa each year. The study classed a child migrant as anyone aged 18 or younger crossing an international border unaccompanied by an adult.

Children crossing a border with an adult friend, parent or guardian were not included in the study, nor were children met at a border by a friend or relative who would care for them once they arrived in South Africa. Children employed in the agricultural sector were also excluded because of the difficulty in accessing them, as were children trafficked by adults for sex work.

Just over three-quarters of the children interviewed were boys, although the researchers from the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand conceded that the skewing of gender numbers was probably a result of girls being employed in "hidden" sectors, such as domestic and sex work. Boys were more accessible as they engaged in such work as hawking.

Although the majority of child migrants originated from Zimbabwe and Mozambique, about a quarter came from countries further afield, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda.

The child migrants "cited a combination of the death of their parents or caregivers, poverty in their home country, and opportunities in South Africa as the reasons why they travelled to South Africa". Despite "crime clearly mentioned as the worst thing about being [here]", 72 percent of the children felt their lives would be better than their parents' lives.

Save the Children recognised that there was a "significant dearth of information about children who cross international borders [unaccompanied]," and the study was a first foray into the world of child migrants for the purpose of suggesting policies and initiatives to assist and protect them, although the small number surveyed made "it difficult to make broad claims about the experiences and needs of children."

"In spite of the many hardships, children were surprisingly optimistic about their futures," the researchers commented. "They felt that South Africa afforded them opportunities that their countries of origin did not, and that if they could access education in South Africa it would be of a very good quality and would create even more opportunities for them."

Published with the permission of IRIN
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or Mike Hitchen Consulting
Photo: Copyright