By Kotie Geldenhuys
Social workers found Manny in the care of a Portuguese-speaking woman who was not his mother. As she did not look after him properly and was neglecting him, the Department of Social Development removed him from her care when he was two years old. In the meantime, this woman has disappeared. Manny has no documents and obviously no knowledge of where he was born or who his parents are. Manny has been living at a children’s home in Cape Town ever since. Because the Department of Home Affairs officials believe that Manny is a foreign national since he was found with a seemingly foreign woman, he remains unregistered. Manny is now 17 and will soon be regarded as an adult.
He only knows South Africa and is terrified of the idea of being considered an undocumented foreign national once he turns 18. He may be subjected to arrest and deportation to a country where he also holds no citizenship. Manny is a bright young boy who wants to study and make a life for himself, but his future is unclear and he cannot make plans to be successful, because he is undocumented and stateless (Lawyers for Human Rights, 2016).
Those of us who have passports or identity documents, take them for granted and don’t realise the importance of these documents to exercise our basic human rights. These documents are literally the “passports” that enable us to open bank accounts, enter into contracts, get medical attention, register the births of our children and enrol our children into schools. People who are without these documents are regarded as stateless persons and are excluded from the social, economic and political sphere of the country. According to the UNHCR (2015), statelessness is a serious reality for more than 10 million people globally. With a stateless child being born somewhere in the world at least every ten minutes, this is clearly a growing problem. In countries hosting the 20 largest stateless populations, at least 70 000 stateless children are born each year. Unfortunately there are no statistics on how many stateless children are living in South Africa. These children are born stateless into a world where they cannot fulfil their ambitions and dreams for the future as they will face a lifetime of discrimination.
While every child is entitled to state protection against exploitation and abuse, stateless children have no such guarantee. A lack of documents proving age leaves them unprotected by child labour laws (Lynch and Teff, Nd). Since stateless children don’t have official documents, they are easy targets for traffickers and child sex exploiters because these children are often easier to hide and manipulate. It is also easier to recruit stateless children into the military because of the inability to prove their real age (http://yapi.org/childrens-rights/statelessness).
What does it mean to be stateless?
The internationally accepted definition of “stateless” is contained in Article 1(1) of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons (the 1954 Convention) which reads as follows: “For the purpose of this Convention, the term ‘stateless person’ means a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” Although South Africa is not a signatory to this Convention, it is bound by this definition as the International Law Commission has concluded that the definition in Article 1(1) is part of customary international law. Therefore the term “statelessness” refers to a person whose nationality status is undetermined and who has a high risk of becoming stateless due to his/her circumstances (George and Elphick, 2014).
Stateless children in South Africa refer to children who live in South Africa, and might even be born here, but hold neither the citizenship of South Africa or any other country in the world. These children are mostly undocumented. Without a birth certificate or ID document, they have trouble accessing education, health care, social grants and travel documents (www.change.org/p/minister-of-home-affairs-end-childhood-statelessness-in-south-africa/u/20413251). According to George and Elphick (2014), these children can be South African orphans, abandoned children, unaccompanied minors, separated children and children living in child-headed households. It is difficult for them to prove their citizenship once their biological parents are no longer part of the picture. Childhood statelessness in South Africa is a generally unaddressed, largely preventable, but a growing phenomenon (Lawyers for Human Rights, 2016). When a stateless child becomes a stateless adult, they are at risk of arrest and deportation, with the consequences of not being able to legally work or study, open a bank account or vote anywhere.