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Amisi, B Baruti,  (2005) Refugee women and children protest … . Centre for Civil Society : -.

by Amisi B. Baruti

Refugee women are struggling to survive to such an extent that they cannot perform their domestic responsibilities. I beg the guest speakers to channel our concern to the South African government and the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in order for them to reconsider their lack of interest in refugee related issues (Male refugee, 67 years).

Jambo madam, Jambo. Jo kurudi nyumbani tangu saa kumi na mbili ya asubui. Nina shoka saana kwasababu mchana wote nina pashwa kuisimama. Na kesho, nina pashwa kurudi tena ku kazi. Bila hivyo, watoto watalala injee and watalala jaa. Hii, siyo maisha kabisa. Amani ingerudi nyumbani turundi basi. Tunanteswa saana” (in Swahili) Good evening madam. I have been at work since six o’clock in the morning. I am very tired because I work standing all day. I am very tired but tomorrow, I must work again. Otherwise, my children will sleep hungry on the streets, you know! This is not life at all. If peace could come back home, we could go home. We are suffering too much. (Refugee woman, 51 years).

The first quote refers to a 67 years Congolese male refugee complaining on behalf of his 28 year old wife during an exhibition entitled “Frontiere Borders Fronteras: A Photographic Exposition of Migration around the World” by Giuseppe Lanzi, on 05 February 2004, at Kwa Muhle Museum, 130 Ordnance Road. The second came from a 51 year old Rwandese refugee woman, exchanging comments with Sudanese refugee woman. These kinds of comments are familiar to people living close to or within the refugee community. These quotes help us to understand what followed few months later, on 20 November 2004 on the streets of Durban.

After years of hesitating to organise peaceful marches against their host country in order to highlight their problems, there were rumors that, at last, women refugees and their children had finally resolved to take to the streets in quest of solutions to their problems. I became interested in finding the organisers of the march and understanding their motives. The organisers replied that there is no place to go to present their plight. Wherever they go they have been asked “why did they come to South Africa and when they will go back home”. As a result, they felt that nobody is really willing to listen to them. That is why, they called a peaceful march since it is “political resource for the powerless” (De La Porta, 1999:165) and power of the powerless. But how did they find this strategy? I do not know because they did not know either. Maybe the evolutionary theorists including Lamarckism theorists could answer this question better than them and me because de Lamarck (1809) argued that:

In every animal which has not passed the limit of its development, a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears…

Although this theory has been destroyed by other researchers, it is useful to explain the need of refugee women and children to exercise and develop their strength and courage through their absolute determination to be heard. They wanted to exercise their Constitutional rights in what may be seen as a “school of democracy” namely South Africa. In fact, not only are many of them the product of fear from attempting to exercise their basic human rights back home, they have in fact been subjected to human rights violations. Secondly, they wanted to do their homework on what their host country is teaching back home and test the flavour of freedom of expression. However, the march may also have a different meaning. Before, exploring what may be the other side of the coin let me describe what I have seen.

After a delay, Metro Police finally agreed with the organisers that the march could take place on 20 November 2004 from 10: 00 to 13: 00. I was the first to arrive at the point of departure, the corner of St George Street and Park Street, in Albert Park area, at 10: 00, because I wanted to witness everything down to the smallest detail. This area regularly hosts different refugee marches for reasons which require further research in order to be understood. The organisers and Metro Police agreed on the route that protesters should follow: the corner of St. George Street and Park Street, St George Street, Russell Street, and West Street. Refugee women and children had to hand their memorandum to the Mayor of Durban at 13: 00. When questioned on how they could take three hours to walk the relatively short distance from Albert Park to the City Hall, the organisers argued that they needed time to set up their transitional committee with all the women who would participate in the march. The organisers had planned the march without any organising committee because it was difficult to unite and convince potential protesters before the march for three main reasons:

First, there is an “activism fatigue” from some refugees and ignorance of their basic constitutional rights for others. In fact, there have been a number of unfruitful protest marches in Durban which did not improve refugees’ living conditions which remain the same and, in same cases, worsened to such extent that those who were unable to cope with harsh South African environment and keep their heads above the wild sea of depression, xenophobic violence, perverse behaviour and structural exclusion imposed to the refugee community. But other refugees simply ignore their rights vis-à-vis their host country (Amisi and Ballard, 2003: 6)

Second, there are unsustainable livelihood strategies they account upon to make end meet. They are living in the margin of deprivation which pushes them to fully exploit every second of their live in terms of economic gains. For this reason, some refugees consider marching as a waste time which a very scarce time.

Third and lastly, there is geographical dispersion of the refugee community across the city. It is costly both in terms of money and time to contact people South African context where there is no communal buildings/ locations where many refugees could live and being easily reached for similar objectives. What is more difficult are the different shifts that different people work in. Transport and phone calls cost money that refugees do not have let alone for the most basic needs. The organisation of these protest are not funded. The costs must be freely covered by the organizers who are in similar situation. That is why the best strategy in order to set a committee was to first spread the news by word of mouth for few weeks and then trying to verify whether indeed people have been well informed or not. This process takes many visits given the reasons mentioned above. These main reasons explain why the refugee community and Congolese refugees are in particular are reluctant to go on the street.

The first wave of potential protesters, five women and six children, arrived thirty minutes after the walk was scheduled to begin. Then Metro Police came to secure the area. And slowly, the number of marchers increased, making the organisers happy and relaxed. They expected 150 to 200 people but their expectation were not realized due to parallel disinformation campaigns around the march for diverse and sometimes conflicting reasons from some interested parties. In fact, meetings such as one called by the Mennonite Central Committee, MCC, about “Discussion about refugee children’s school fees” on Monday, 22 November 2004, whereas the march was organised for the Saturday, was seen by some refugees as a way of distracting refugees because such meetings never occurred in Durban. Thus, some refugees believed that there was no need to march because school fees was the topic of the meeting organised by the MCC which is the UNHCR’s partner in charge of refugee children’s education. Despite the confusion, about 150 people of all ages marched on 20 November 2004. The youngest was a baby boy, a few months old, on his mother’s back while the oldest was a woman of 68 years old. Six male refugees were also present. They claimed that refugee women’s problems affect them all since refugee women are sisters, aunts, mothers, and spouses. They had to support them and protect their children.

There was no media to cover the event even though newspaper editors were personally informed and invited by some academics whose are interested in new social movements and democratic changes in South Africa from the University of KwaZulu Natal and me. This is not surprising since refugees’ marches have never been covered by the South African media. Some protesters were so discouraged that they were nearly ready to go back home because they had believed that their concerns would be seen on TV and in newspapers. This position was balanced by another view which expressed the hope of meeting and personally talking to the Mayor of Durban. Then those who were discouraged changed their minds and decided to support the protesters. Around, 11:00, the march started and followed the route already described.

There were different messages on different posters of different kinds. Some were on cloth banners, others on cardboard or paper. Two posters captured my attention and they were carried by two children of almost six and seven years old. The first one said:

Please Minister; help me counting in ones, twos, threes,
Is number name = number symbol?

and the one claimed:

Refugee parents as well as refugee children are entitled to the same basic health services and basic primary education which the inhabitants of the Republic receive from time to time;

I wondered whether these children comprehended the course of events. Not all of them did including my 11 year old son who asked me why his mother had taken them there. Then I explained to him that they were participating in a practical session of what South Africa as a nation is teaching to the world and African Continent in particular, namely a lesson in a basic democratic principle that of freedom of expression. I said they were trying to highlight the problem of paying school fees. Many refugee parents, including myself, cannot afford to pay fees, since the South African state makes it impossible for refugees to obtain work legally. Other youngsters were playing, singing and dancing. But I think that they all understood that something was wrong as the protesters drew closer to the City Hall. Two events made them think this. First, demonstrators met a South African man who angrily shouted at them:

What are you doing here? Have you seen South Africans marching against your countries? If you are not happy you must go back home and organise your marches there, not here. Do you understand?

The Metro Police escorting the march observed him and continued to ensure the security of demonstrators. The second event was the heat and hunger. It was almost 33 degree Celsius and children were hungry and thirsty. They asked their parents for water to drink and something to eat and the response was that they were not at a party! The parents said they were protesting in order to improve their children’s education and give them a chance for a better future. I think that when they did not get anything from their parents, the children understood that really something was wrong because they cried, sweated, got tired and finally kept quiet. One volunteer among the protesters bought iced juice for all the children. While the children were busy distracting themselves with iced juice, their mothers were setting up the temporary committee of the Durban Refugee Women Community as planned.

The Mayor was not available. He was represented by one of his advisors. The memorandum was read to the city official by a refugee student who became the secretary of the Durban Refugee Women Community (DRWC) committee. Then the committee handed it to the Mayor’s representative. In the meantime, women and children were singing, dancing, crying, and waving posters to the Mayor’s representative who promised them he would channel their concerns to the Mayor and he was sure the Mayor would invite the committee in the near future for a discussion.

But the question remains – has the march fully addressed all the questions that need to be asked? What about the adult based education for refugee women, is it relevant within the refugee community which research has shown to have, generally speaking, a secondary education? Is education necessary for refugee children and who must pay and why? What is the overall message of the march?

I will examine these questions in the light the Constitution of South Africa, the Refugee Act and both the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the 1951 United Nations (UN) Convention on Refugees. The 1969 OAU Convention governing the Specific Aspects of Refugees Problems in Africa (UNHCR, 1969: 5), article 2, section 2 states that:

The grant of asylum to refugees is a peaceful and humanitarian act and shall be regarded as an unfriendly act by any Member State.

whereas the 1951 UN Convention (UNHCR, 2001: 9) regarding refugee related issues, Preamble and article 22 declares:

The UN wants to assure refugees the widest possible exercise of ... fundamental rights and freedoms (Preamble);

States shall accord to refugees the same treatment as is accorded to nationals with respect of elementary education (art 22);

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UN, 1948), article 26, section 1, states:
Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
On the other hand, the Constitution of South Africa, Chapter 2, Bill of Rights:

Section 10: Everyone has inherent dignity and right to their dignity being respected;
Section 27 (1): Everyone has the right to have access to
health care services...
(c) social security;
Section 27 (2): The State must take reasonable legislative and other measures
within its available, to achieve the progressive realisation of each of these rights;)
Section 27 (3): No one may not be refused emergency medical treatment;
Section 28 (1): Every child has the right to:
(c) basic nutrition, shelter, basic health care services and social
(d) to be protected from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation
Section 29 (1): Every one has the right
to basic education including adult basic education; and
to further education which the State through reasonable measures must make progressively available and accessible;

The Refugee Act (130 of 1998), article 27 (Department of Home Affairs, 2000):

Refugee parents as well as refugee children are entitled to the same basic health services and basic primary education which the inhabitants of the Republic receive from time to time;

The Refugee Act 2000, article 15 (g) (Department of Home Affairs, 2000):

An asylum seeker who has been granted asylum in the section 24 (3) (a) of the Act is entitled to the same basic health services and basic primary education as inhabitants of the Republic;

According to Gotz (2004: 24), the Constitution specifies that the Municipalities have legislative and executive power over a number of issues including “water and sanitation, waste removal; fire fighting services, municipal planning, street trading”, to list few.

Section 153(a) of the Constitution says that every municipality must, structure and manage its administration and budgeting and planning process to give priority to the basic needs of the community, and promote the social and economic development of the community. Section 152(1) further defines this developmental duty by saying that the local government has various objects or purposes. These include to promote social and economic development, to promote a safe and healthy environment … there is nothing in this language about who is included, or excluded, from the community (Gotz, 2004: 26)

Thus, the local governments have responsibilities to provide the basic needs of refugees who live in their entities as few Court Cases regarding access to social welfare illustrate it in Cape Town and Johannesburg (Bhamjee and Klaaren, 2004: 57).

In practice, Durban refugee children are not accepted at certain public schools on the ground that their parents are unable to pay the school fees. In schools where refugee children have been accepted, their parents are excluded from the school governing bodies for the simple reason that some parents cannot afford to pay on time or are in arrears with school fees. This practice is illegal but the law enforcement agencies do not enforce the law. What is worse, this practice contradicts the position of the South African government regarding refugee children’s education. In fact, on 20 June 2003, “World Refugee Day”, at the Institute of Technology in Durban, the Minister of Education declared that refugee children are entitled to free education (Asmal, 2003)

Regarding the need for Adult Based Education and Training (ABET) for a community which has, on average, at least a secondary education (Kadima, 2001: 91; Skinner and Hunter, 2002: 13; Mail & Guardian Online, December 11, 2003), there are three points to consider. First, there is a need for the ABET for both refugee parents and those who did not get a chance to study at home for diverse reasons such as that fleeing the country interrupted their studies. There are a substantial number of refugees without any education at all in the city of Durban. This group of people requires adult literacy to improve their living standards including information about issues such as HIV/AID, basic concepts of calculation, sales and marketing, and management of household finance and of trading even though this latter activity is illegal since they are not recognised as economic agents in the city. This education is more relevant for refugee women because they help their children with homework and they are in charge of the health and finance of their households. As one of the placards of the protest said, “to educate a woman is to educate a nation”. Second, refugees’ qualifications from home are not recognised in South Africa, with exception in principle of those for nurses and medical doctors who have not right to work legally in the country either. Lastly, many of these qualifications back home in the DRC are not marketable in South Africa. Thus, parent refugees and particularly women need marketable survivalist skills to adapt and work in the South African environment and become more productive in the economy of the city.

Education is as necessary for refugee children as it is for non-refugee children because it is a human right and it empowers them with the necessary skills to take care of themselves in the future. It is true that many South African children are in the same situation. Nevertheless, refugees’ problems should be considered within the framework of international law. Illiteracy among refugee children, currently 26 percent in South Africa, according to Groot (2004: 39), will in the long run be a limiting factor to programmes such as fighting HIV/AID, poverty and crime. Refugee children’s education calls for involvement of all stakeholders including refugees, the UNHCR, and the host country. Given that refugees have no access to qualified jobs in the formal sector or to trading sites in the informal economy, the possibility of refugee parents paying school fees is limited and hence they are dependent on the two remaining stakeholders of which the host country’s institutions including the local government, provincial and national government, on the one hand, and the UNHCR on the other hand.
In my view, the refugee women tried to deal with one of the symptoms which characterise their living conditions in the city of Durban and not with the root cause of their problems. The march pointed towards the cumulative consequences of general social and economic malaise of a marginalised community. Indeed, refugees have no access to trading licence and sites in the informal sector, no access to formal and qualified employment, no access to free emergency care or basic education, no access to certain schools, no right to free medical care, no right to state or NGO assistance, to list only a few of the difficulties (Groot, 2004: 39). Regarding the asylum-seekers, those awaiting the processing of their applications for refugee status, the Refugee Act 2000 does not allow them to work or be self-employed despite the lack of material and financial assistance from both the state and the UNHCR, or being expelled from the Republic if “the expulsion will result in them being persecuted or their lives, physical safety and freedom threatened” (Hunter and Skinner, 2002: 6). That is why refugee women should rather claim opportunities which will empower them in a more sustainable way. They should claim for instance, in addition to fee ABET, a 13-digit identification document which will give them access to formal employment and trading site and licences in the informal sector where refugees in general are subject to police harassment due to lack of official recognition as economic agents in the city through access to trading site and licences, and exploitative practices via sub renting from South Africans who charge ten times the official rate. The 13-digit identification document will also give refugees access to bank accounts, public services such as hospital, schools, and social welfare to which they have constitutional rights and from which they are structurally excluded. Free education alone as a claim is not is not enough since refugee women would still face other financial difficulties including money to pay for stationery, school uniforms, transport, accommodation, and other basic needs.

Therefore, the real answer to the education problem and the lack of free education is the total inclusion of the refugee community in developmental policies and planning of the city. These elements will enable them to look after themselves and support, their families. They should claim, particularly those who are married to South Africans and those who have been granted asylum for five consecutive years in the country, for example, their key Constitutional rights which would resolve their other problems.

In conclusion, the UNHCR should resume its leading role in refugee related issues particularly given the lack or absence of service delivery via NGOs partners which are seen by many refugees to play a destructive role. The fact that some refugees have left the camps in neighbouring countries or choose not to live in refugee camps does not reduce their human rights including the right to work in the formal or informal sectors, free basic education, fair access to social services, fair and quick asylum processing, and access to accommodation in Durban. In the context of the city of Durban, free English lessons for two to six months (Groot, 2004: 41) are not enough to integrate refugees into their host community. There is a need for active lobbying and advocacy to loosen structural barriers and create some kind on inclusion for all the residents of the city. In addition, the UNHCR should not wait until the South African government fulfills its obligations vis-à-vis refugees in order to deal with refugees’ problems. The South African government in turn needs to fulfill its international obligations regarding refugees. It needs to incorporate the refugee community into its developmental programmes rather than considering refugees solely as a burden and thus considering refugees’ issues as a taboo in policy development (Ballard, 2004: 108).


Amisi, B.B. and Ballard, R. 2004. “Refugee Organisation and Struggle in South Africa”. University of KwaZulu Natal Durban: Centre for Civil Society Research Report

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Bhamjee, A. and Klaaren, J. 2004. “Legal problems facing refugees in Johannesburg” in Landau, L.B. Forced migrants in the New Johannesburg: Towards a Local Government Response. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand.

Ballard, R. 2004. “Preliminary considerations on the relationship between forced migrants and the city of eThekwini” in Landau, L.B. Forced migrants in the New Johannesburg: Towards a Local Government Response. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand.

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Gotz, G. 2004. “The role of local government towards forced migrants” in Landau, L.B. Forced migrants in the New Johannesburg: Towards a Local Government Response. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand.

Groot, F. 2004. “Challenges of the UNHCR’s programme for urban refugees in South Africa” in Landau, L.B. Forced migrants in the New Johannesburg: Towards a Local Government Response. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand.

Kadima, D. 2001. “Motivations for migration and character of the economic
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Mail & Guard, Online December 11, 2003 “National Survey: Most refugees in South Africa are skilled”. Pretoria: Japan’s International Cooperation Agency and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
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