Southern Africa: Child migrants tell all

Wednesday, April 30, 2008
The stories of children who travel alone in Southern Africa tell of beatings at the hands of the authorities, of their possessions being taken, of forced labour, and their vulnerability to sexual abuse. But a new publication by Save the Children (SC) also tells of their bravery and resilience, and they even offer advice to other young migrants.

In "Our Broken Dreams: Child Migration in Southern Africa", released by SC UK, and SC Norway in Mozambique, the children highlight the dangers they face when crossing borders alone.

SC interviewed migrant children in four countries: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. "Many were very clear about how they should be helped by governments in the region, and how they should be treated with respect," Christopher Bjornestad, a Child Migration Specialist at SC in Mozambique, told IRIN.

"A number of children called for the authorities to stop abusing, imprisoning and repatriating them to their home countries, while others said they should be entitled to free education in the host countries."

One child who had made his way to South Africa from Zimbabwe, said: "We jumped over the first fence and the second one, which is electrified and has razor wire and cement posts. Then we will be moving though the forest, so you might be attacked by lions and other wild animals. We met two soldiers and they shot more than six bullets into the sky." He told the interviewers he had come to look for work.

"These are the voices of real children, and they are saying clearly that we must do more to protect them. Unaccompanied child migrants are extremely vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, but this is an issue which has slipped through the cracks of public concern in southern Africa and around the world," said Chris McIvor, Country Director of SC UK in Mozambique.

"Although numbers are difficult to estimate because of the 'illegality' of much of the cross-border movement of children, indications are that this affects tens of thousands of children every year."

He said the difficulty of measuring the exact numbers of migrant children in the region should not be a reason for minimising the scale of the problem and the nature of the difficulties these children faced.

"There are sufficient indicators to point to a phenomenon that is widespread and serious. For example, figures previously released by the South African authorities for undocumented Zimbabwean migrants reveal that of the two thousand people being repatriated each week, up to 20 percent were unaccompanied children," McIvor told IRIN.

"We must remember that these figures only account for those who are caught and repatriated - the majority of children go undetected," said McIvor, who pointed out that the plight of migrant children in Southern Africa was still "invisible" because governments in the region were unwilling to accept the scale and nature of the problem.

"A reluctance to acknowledge the political and economic failures that push children out of one country into another, and an unwillingness to recognise the ill-treatment that children face in the locations where they have ended up, have created a culture of silence around this issue," he commented.

The children who told their stories in the book called for better protection in host countries, teaching children and communities about the dangers of travelling to and living in foreign countries, and for a halt to the abuse, imprisonment and forced repatriation often inflicted on them.