South Africa

Refugee children miss out on school

News and Press Release
Originally published

JOHANNESBURG, 31 January 2012 (IRIN) - In the inner-city Johannesburg neighbourhood of Berea, where a large proportion of residents are refugees and asylum-seekers, it is not uncommon to see children playing football in the street or killing time at one of the local parks on a weekday. Judith Manjoro, an out-of-work teacher from Zimbabwe, teamed up with some other community workers two years ago to quiz the children about why they were not in school.

"They told us [the schools] asked them to produce ID documents and permits which they don't have," she said. "We also found the parents weren't working and couldn't afford to pay school fees, even for public schools."

In early 2011, Manjoro and several other unemployed teachers from Zimbabwe and elsewhere, decided to start a project that would go some way towards meeting the need of local refugee and migrant children for affordable schooling with no bureaucratic strings attached. Word quickly spread and today iTemba Study Centre accommodates about 140 children in five cramped classrooms on the first floor of an office building in Berea. In the mornings the centre is open to pre-primary pupils and in the afternoons, seven volunteer teachers teach grades 1-8 using donated textbooks.

"It's a good school, but we don't have enough supplies," said Duduzile Zulu, 15, from Zimbabwe, who started coming to the centre about a year ago after her mother's income as a waitress failed to cover the cost of her attending a nearby private school. To progress to Grade 9 she will need to transfer to another school, "but I don't have a birth certificate and my Mum can't get time off work to go to [the Department of] Home Affairs," she told IRIN, adding that she knew of other migrant children who did not attend school at all.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) released a report on refugee education in November 2011 [ ] highlighting the limited access refugee children have to education, particularly at secondary levels and for those living in urban areas.


While the quality of education available in refugee camps varies, the difficulties of accessing education in urban settings are generally greater. In addition to legal and policy barriers and the often prohibitive costs of sending a child to a local school, the UNHCR report noted that: "refugee children often have less support than in a camp-based school in adjusting to a new curriculum, learning a new language, accessing psychosocial support, and addressing discrimination, harassment, and bullying from teachers and peers. They may also encounter a lack of familiarity by local school authorities for the processes of admitting refugee children and recognizing prior learning."

A year-long, yet-to-be published study by the Centre for Education Rights and Transformation at the University of Johannesburg into the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants to education in South Africa found that schools often demanded documents to enrol a child which are not legally required.

"Often the students don't have, according to the schools, the right papers," said Ivor Baatjes, one of the study researchers, adding that school principals and staff at public schools were often ignorant of South Africa's actual policy which grants every child the right to access education. "Even for children of undocumented migrants, children have the right to be in school and nothing should be a barrier," he told IRIN.

Demands that parents pay fees at government schools which have been designated as no-fee schools, create a further barrier, said Baatjes, especially for refugees who are often unaware of the law or of their rights. The study also found that those children who are admitted sometimes have to contend with xenophobic attitudes from both teachers and other pupils.

"They treat people equally here," commented Antonia Tshili, a 16-year-old from Zimbabwe, who left a government school last year after the fees became too much for her mother, and started attending iTemba. "At the other school there is this thing that Zimbabweans should go back to their country; they bullied me."

UNHCR changes tack

Historically, UNHCR provided scholarships for refugee children to study in government or private schools in urban areas, but with nearly half of refugees now living in urban areas and only 4 percent of UNHCR's total budget in 2010 dedicated to education, this approach is no longer viable and the agency now prioritizes working with governments to advocate the integration of refugees into national school systems.

In South Africa, UNHCR channels funding through local NGOs which educate refugees about their rights and school principals about their obligation to admit refugee children. Additional funding goes to helping refugee children with school books, uniforms and transport while a new approach, being piloted in Durban, is experimenting with donating lump sum contributions to inner-city government schools on the understanding that they will not turn away any refugee child seeking admission.

"When you look at most of these schools, they host a number of under-privileged children, not only refugees, and the subsidy from government is not great," said Mmone Moletsane, UNHCR community services officer in South Africa. "While no child should be refused education because there's no money, schools have to survive."

Despite such efforts by UNHCR and the NGO community, Baatjes said that centres like iTemba and a similar project based at Sacred Heart College in the nearby neighbourhood of Observatory, provided "a much needed space and service" to local migrant and refugee communities.

The donor-funded Three2Six Project at Sacred Heart College, now in its fifth year, uses classrooms vacated by the school's regular pupils during the afternoons, to teach refugee children up to Grade 6 level. The project also employs teachers who are refugees themselves and able to overcome language and cultural barriers.

"While the parents are busy organizing their lives and trying to get papers from Home Affairs, the children come here," explained project coordinator Esther Oliver Munonoka. "The aim is not to keep the children here, but prepare them for proper school. By the time they leave, they can understand English and integrate into any school."

In reality, however, many of the students stay for as long as they can. Nzanga Kapena, 11, from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who has been coming to the Three2Six Project since 2008, said her mother could not afford "regular schools" and that she does not know what will happen next year when she finishes grade six and will have to leave. "My sisters and brother, when they left here, they just stayed at home," she said.

Future uncertain

The future of iTemba and the Three2Six Project are also uncertain. Neither are recognized by the Department of Education or receive any public funding. The Three2Six Project receives enough donations from faith-based organizations in Europe that its 150 students can attend for free and are given uniforms, stationery and books, but is still not fully-funded for 2012 and will likely have to cut its Grade 6 class next year despite what Munonoka describes as an ever increasing need for its services.

iTemba charges those parents who can afford it R200 (US$26) a month to cover rental of the building and to pay teachers a small stipend, but according to Manjoro, "a number are failing to afford it."

"My aunt doesn't pay anything for me to come here," said Sarah Dube*, a 16-year-old from Zimbabwe, whose mother sent her and her sister to South Africa "to get a better education".

"I'd like to go to a proper school, but I don't trust myself that I can make it," she added. "I think I'm behind."

*Not her real name