Maverick Citizen Op-Ed

‘Why I can’t leave’: Home Affairs is part of the problem for refugee and migrant women stuck in abusive situations

By Sally Gandar 15 June 2021

Refugees living on the pavement near the Cape Town Central Police Station. (Photo: Nardus Engelbrecht / Gallo Images)

Under lockdown, with no in-person services available to refugees and asylum seekers at Home Affairs, a woman who wants to separate her documentation from that of an abusive husband or partner cannot do so.

Sally Gandar

I cannot leave, because of my children.”

There is no place for me to go.”

My documents are all linked to my husband, so if I left I would be without legal status in South Africa.”

My job would not support me and the children if we left, so we have to stay.”

Many refugee, asylum seeker and migrant women have experienced many departures – departure from their home country, departure from their home, departure from the comfort and familiarity of speaking their home language, of being surrounded by those they know or feel at home with. 

These departures are by no means easy. They are acts of faith, journeys of hope and often grasps at the chance of a better, safer future, for themselves and their families. 

However, there is one other departure that is often not possible for (mainly) women who find themselves in another country far from their hometowns, their mother tongues and the support networks they grew up with – leaving a situation where they are at risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). 

For the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign in 2020, the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, in partnership with UNICEF, ran a communications campaign on SGBV to highlight the resources available for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. Through the campaign we found that while some resources are made available to victims and survivors of SGBV, many of these are contingent upon an individual having valid documentation in South Africa.

Yet it is often those without valid documentation who are most at risk. Perpetrators of SGBV do not distinguish between citizens and non-citizens, or those who have an ID and those who don’t. Those who are not citizens and might not have an ID have less access to support, less recourse and fewer departure options.

Contrary to the claim that “illegal” migrants have chosen to enter the country without the correct papers, the truth of the matter is that there are few who would choose to live in another country undocumented. For many, valid documentation is a luxury. In fact, the lack of papers which afford them the right to work, to study and to access support services is yet another departure – from security, safety and the acknowledgement of their rights as human beings. 

And while the challenge of obtaining documentation has been widely reported, it is still hard to comprehend the complex, contradictory and confusing processes created by Home Affairs for migrants to follow – often to then only reach a dead end. 

During the course of South Africa’s nationwide lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, this situation has worsened as refugees and asylum seekers have not been able to access in-person services at the country’s refugee reception offices. This initially meant that if an asylum seeker permit or refugee status document expired, its holder could not renew it. In June 2020, the Minister of Home Affairs issued a blanket extension of all asylum and refugee documents that expired during lockdown. This extension was reissued from time to time, with the most recent one providing for an extension to 30 June 2021. 

The services that have not been offered, though, include new asylum applications, as well as family joining, and file separations – services that could mean the difference between someone being able to leave an abusive partner or not.  

I cannot leave, because of my children.”

Often children are documented through only one parent. If that parent is an abusive partner a file separation and subsequent process of joining the child or children to the other parent’s file have to take place. This cannot happen at present, because Home Affairs’ refugee reception offices are not offering these services and haven’t been providing them since at least March 2020. Moreover, there are often intersecting issues such as financial dependence, child support and family networks that make a departure impossible. 

I cannot leave, because there is no place for me to go.”

One of the many departures a migrant, asylum seeker or refugee initially makes is leaving their support structures and community behind. Shelters in South Africa, aside from being full, often require a valid document in order for someone to be placed there. Due to Covid-19 they also require a negative Covid-19 test. For some the cost of a Covid test is prohibitive. For others their lack of documentation or access to Home Affairs services in order to obtain the required documentation means they cannot get placed at a shelter. 

The devastating economic consequences of the lockdown, as well as the lack of in-person services at refugee offices, add to the barriers facing asylum seeker, refugee and migrant victims and survivors of SGBV when trying to find a way out of an abuse situation. Subsequently, they are forced to remain in abusive situations without any option to exit. Another departure denied. 

My job would not support me and the children if we left, so we have to stay.”

Financial dependence and the inability to support their children are often why someone might remain in an abusive situation. This applies regardless of nationality, documentation or immigration status. South African citizens and permanent residents, as well as refugees who have refugee identity documents, have access to support options such as social grants they might qualify for, for example the child support grant. For those without documentation or immigration status, or for asylum seekers, these are not an option. 

Indeed, even the social relief of distress grant created to support people during the lockdown was initially only made available to South Africans and refugees. It took litigation to make it available to asylum seekers and special permit holders as well. These interventions and initiatives, and campaigns like the Basic Income Grant, are key in trying to help some of society’s most vulnerable. They could be vital for victims and survivors of SGBV by providing the potential for a necessary and needed departure from an abusive situation. 

I cannot leave, because my documents are all linked to my husband, so if I left I would be without legal status in South Africa.”

A key intersecting issue can be that many children, and women and children, are documented through the father in a household. In Home Affairs terms this is known as the “principal applicant” or the “main file holder”. This person must always be present when a document is being renewed, following which the dependents in the file receive their renewed document. When faced with the choice between being undocumented or staying in an abusive situation many refugee and asylum seeker women have no options. 

It is an impossible choice. To stay means they remain documented and maintain lawful immigration status in South Africa. To leave means they are rendered undocumented; at risk of possible arrest, detention and deportation; and lose documentation allowing them to work. Under lockdown, with no in-person services available to refugees and asylum seekers from Home Affairs, a woman who wants to separate her documentation from that of an abusive husband or partner cannot do so. 

In South Africa it is reported that between 25% and 40% of women have experienced SGBV or intimate partner violence. It is a systemic and deeply entrenched issue. For refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, it is exacerbated by lack of access to immigration status and documentation. 

If the government were truly committed to combating GBV, one way to support victims and survivors is to ensure that they can access documentation services throughout the country. DM/MC

Sally Gandar is head of advocacy and a legal adviser at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, the Scalabrini Centre, with UNICEF, ran a social media campaign highlighting various organisations that provide assistance to victims and survivors of SGVB.

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