World Refugee Day Southern Africa: advocating for education

World Refugee Day Southern Africa: advocating for education

ohannesburg, 23 June 2016 -- Conflict, war and persecution drive people away from their homes, all too often, with only the clothes on their backs and whatever other possessions they could grab before fleeing. In recognition of these challenges, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Southern Africa ensures that education remains an essential part of rebuilding the lives of displaced people and has witnessed the fact that education irrefutably unlocks potential.

Refugees and asylum seekers across the world leave their homes, families and countries behind, through no choice of their own. They are then forced to begin a new life, attempt to pursue an interrupted education, earn an income to feed themselves and their families and more than often, begin rebuilding lives they suddenly had to abandon, as they fled their homes.

This rebuilding process is a difficult one. With obstacles in the way of slowly stitching together their lives, refugees and asylum seekers are all too often faced with bureaucratic barriers and institutionalised and community xenophobia that redoubles their socio-economic struggles. Education has allowed refugees and asylum seekers to look beyond their own statuses as displaced people and realise their potential to obtain employment, start innovative businesses and positively impact their communities.

JRS Southern Africa works in both camps and urban settings. In urban areas like Luanda, Angola, and Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa, JRS advocates for educational access for refugees. In Tongogara camp in Zimbabwe and Dzaleka camp in Malawi, education has been used by refugees not to only improve their lives, but that of the rest of their community.

In South Africa, refugees are all too often obstructed by officials within schools and those in positions of power. Ignorance and negative attitudes toward all refugees and migrants cause children to be refused access to schools.

Roza Abdirahman Hassen, an asylum seeker from Ethiopia, witnessed this first-hand. Roza applied to have one of her children placed in the public primary school in the Johannesburg suburb of Kensington. One of the administrators at the school claimed that the provincial school administration body, the Gauteng Department of Education, would fine the school R 5000.00 (337 USD), if they registered the child with an asylum seeker’s permit, and as a result they refused.

This, however, was a violation of national law. Under South African law, children of refugees and asylum seekers legally have the right to access education through public schools, and so JRS intervened. In a courteous but frank conversation, JRS informed the school of the right of the child to access education whilst informing Roza of her responsibilities to ensure that the child’s documentation is always up-to-date as not to cause an interruption in education. Today, Roza’s child is doing well at the school in Kensington.

The situation is more challenging in Angola, as reported by the UN Special Rapporteur for Migrants, following a recent 10 day visit to the country. The Special Rapporteur found that the “Circular de Execução Permanente”, an order from May 2011 which suspended the birth registration of children born to foreign parents in Angola, had never been repealed. The Special Rapporteur explains what the impact of this is: “birth registration is fundamental to the protection of migrant children and prevents statelessness. Failure to document a person’s legal existence prevents the effective enjoyment of a range of human rights, including access to education and health care.” In recognition of how this prevents access to education, JRS Angola has petitioned government, actively advocating to repeal this administrative instruction.

In the few cases where the children of cross-border migrants -- including the children of refugees and asylum seekers -- have their children’s births registered, birth certificates indicate that the parents are foreigners and this is used by many, such as employers or civil servants, to discriminate against migrants.

Our work in education, within the refugee camps of Malawi and Zimbabwe is more formal. JRS has taken a central role in the construction and administration of schools which serve both refugee and local communities. Serving 550 students, Saint Michael’s secondary school has ensured that children living in Tongogara refugee camp and local, Zimbabwean, children from surrounding communities do not have exhaustive distances to walk to school. Recent additions include a library, a science laboratory, a teacher’s office and three more classrooms for grades one through four.

With approximately 24,000 refugees in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi – more than twice the population of Tongogara –JRS’ educational programme in Malawi are even further-reaching. JRS is responsible for running all educational programmes from early childhood to tertiary and including vocational skills training. With nearly 6,300 children in school -- 5,100 primary, 800 secondary and 364 preschool – JRS has been responsible for the construction of all the schools and the further expansion and employment of teachers from the local Malawian community as well as refugee volunteers.

This World Refugee Day, on 20 June 2016, JRS calls upon all refugees and hosting communities to commit to education as an important means to “open minds, and unlock potential”. Whether it be the active advocacy for urban refugees or teaching in schools in refugee camps, JRS in Southern Africa has been at the forefront of providing hope and opportunity to refugees through education.

--Gushwell Brooks, JRS Southern Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer

Back View all articles