Poor immigrants in South Africa are living in fear and hunger under the Covid-19 lockdown, and civil society groups are blaming government’s “exclusionary” lockdown regulations.

Densely populated Alexandra in Johannesburg is situated in the city’s epicentre of Covid-19 cases and is home to thousands of undocumented immigrants living in informal settlements around the township.

Rays of Hope, a non-profit organisation operating in the area, has reached 43,000 people in its massive campaign to feed the hungry since the beginning of the lockdown.

The group’s CEO, Sihle Mooi, said about 5% of their beneficiaries were undocumented immigrants who lived in fear of xenophobic attacks even for the simple act of accepting free food.

Government-issued food parcels and other social services were only available to those who had documentation, including a South African ID.

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“It’s a growing concern in that area because there is this sentiment that some people should not benefit from the food parcels,” said Mooi.

Falling through the cracks of government bureaucracy

The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA (CORMSA) said it had repeatedly tried to engage government on solutions which could assist this group that fell through the cracks of government bureaucracy.

According to CORMSA spokesperson Abigail Dawson, the group had concerns with the exclusion of both undocumented and documented immigrants, as well as asylum seekers.

“These are among the most vulnerable people in our society. These people have no form of income as a result of the lockdown because they depend on the informal economy to survive,” said Dawson. “Our viewpoint is that once people feel pushed to a corner, they could take risky measures in order to find food and other resources they need to survive.

“Thus they will simply not adhere to social distancing and other regulations in an attempt to find food.

“There are also cases of people trying to return to their countries out of desperation so there is a huge concern around the wellness and safety of these people.”

Plight of undocumented children

The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) also expressed concern about the plight of undocumented children whose families could no longer provide an income as a result of the lockdown.

UNICEF SA’s Helen Nyangoya said various organisations had written to government urging that provisions be made available for immigrants who did not qualify for state assistance.

“They are suggesting that, for instance, the current R350 social distress grant should be made available to those who are in need, regardless of their immigration status.

“But then there is also the fear from undocumented migrants who do not want to come forward because of the possibility of their locations being known, putting them at risk of deportation,” said Nyangoya.

Since the lockdown, the department of home affairs has not been issuing certificates for asylum seekers but informed asylum seekers that no one would be deported during the lockdown.

“But we don’t know how this will be applied when the lockdown is lifted. Even now, despite the fact that government said no evictions would be carried out during the lockdown, some evictions have happened,” she said.

According to Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu’s latest report on the processing of undocumented immigrants at the department of home affairs, the backlog in the processing of this group meant it would take 68 years for the department to process current asylum seekers.

“During this process, many individuals apply for asylum and remain in the country indefinitely, pending the final decision on their status,” the report said.

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Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni – Citizen

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