A Young Refugee’s COVID-19 Experience In South Africa

As the pandemic unfolds, his income has drastically decreased and so making him not able to settle expenses such as university tuition installment.

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By Gaby Ndongo (7 mins) 

For the months of April and May, Andre Fernando* used his usual month-end income to cover his expenses: rent, university tuition installment, food, transportation to and from work. The month of May witnessed him earn two times less of the regular income.

Andre’s regular income decreased from R5,000-R6,000 to R1,300. He is now working 1-2 times a week from 4-5 times before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) nation-wide lockdown, which began on 27th March.

The current income will make it impossible for him to cover his costs. “I stay in a bachelor apartment with my aunt and little cousins. We split the rent of R2,500: I contribute R1,500; my aunt and her oldest daughter split the remaining R1,000,” he explains. 

Apart from the rent, Andre roughly spends +/-R1,000 for food as well as R1,000-R1,500 for transportation to and from work. He also needs to put aside some funds to pay for his university tuition fees, which costs R8,000 per semester. “I never had savings (before the lockdown) because my earnings weren’t enough to cover all my expenses,” says Andre.

The 24-year-old has a part-time, retail job at a clothing store, where he has been working for four years since finishing matric. The store closed its doors during the level 5 nation-wide lockdown and experienced a sharp decline in sales. “Even though the company has opened their doors during level 4, sales are still declining,” he says.

Andre is a refugee, who came to South Africa from Angola with his aunt in 1998, completing all his primary and high school education in South Africa. 

Possible academic setback

The reduced income, he says, will “drastically” affect his ability to pay his university tuition fees. Andre is a first-year economics student at the University of South Africa (Unisa). 

“If I don’t finish paying my fees before the semester ends, I won’t get my results and I will not be able to register for the second semester,” he explains. This possible outcome will require him to enroll for the second semester in the following year (2021), setting him a year back.

Data visualisation by Gaby Ndongo. Data as of Wednesday, 10th June 2020.

Before registering at Unisa, Andre was in a Braamfontein-based college, Damelin, and completed an N4 level in mechanical engineering. He then dropped out because the “fees were too expensive” and “the service was poor; they hardly had lectures. So, I decided that it wasn’t worth it”. 

Andre’s case is one encountered by many other young people in the country. According to a report released in 2019 by Statistics South Africa, “more than half (or 51%) of youth aged 18–24 claimed that they did not have the financial means to pay for their [tertiary education] tuition”. 

“Many students drop out without completing a qualification, or they take up to six years to complete a three-year qualification,” reads the report.

Refugee students have access to limited financial aid, which are often ineffectively communicated to them. These forms of aid include university merit bursaries that mostly pay no more than 25% of the overall tuition fees and the DAFI Scholarship that funds a few refugee students every year. 

On the other hand, South African citizens and those with permanent residence are in the position of receiving various forms of financial aid such as the government-funded bursary through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme

Inadequate social safety nets

The South African government has availed an overall of R500-billion as part of an emergency rescue package to mitigate the socio-economic effects of COVID-19.

One of the efforts is the COVID-19 social relief grant, which distributes R350 to eligible applicants. Eligible applicants are citizens, those with permanent residency and refugee status. This means that migrants with asylum seeker, study and work permits are not allowed to receive such a grant. 

Furthermore, it excludes people receiving any income or other COVID-19 response support such as that from the COVID-19 temporary employee/employer scheme of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). The scheme assists employers to partially pay the incomes of their workers. 

Preferably, its process should be initiated by the employer. An employee can also start the process if s/he is a UIF contributor and the employer is not using the scheme. One should be unemployed as a result of employment termination, dismissal, insolvency or a reduced income due to a decrease in working hours caused by the lockdown. 

Data visualisation by Gaby Ndongo. Data as of Wednesday, 10th June 2020.

Andre says that he is not aware of any specific relief plan to assist refugees. “My only hope right now is applying for UIF,” says Andre, who explains that his current finance cannot sustain him for the duration of the lockdown.

Nicola Shepherd, chief of UN’s youth programme, writes that young migrants and refugees are one of the most affected groups of migrants during this pandemic. 

“Given 70% of all international migrants are below 30 years of age globally and in 2019, 38 million international migrants were below the age of 20 years, epidemics such as COVID-19 are likely to disproportionately affect this population,” Shepherd explains. 

Shepherd adds that refugees “often live in precarious living conditions” and are likely to be “left behind in the provision of healthcare when national systems’ capacities are overstretched due to COVID-19”. 

On the other hand, the government’s food relief programmes have been biased, emphasising that applicants should have identification (ID) numbers and for citizens to be prioritised, outlines a joint statement by the Centre for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria and the Centre for Applied Legal Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

According to Shepherd, “There is also a risk COVID-19 may further stigmatise migrants and refugees or increase xenophobia and racism, which in turn may further affect the ability of young migrants and refugees to receive healthcare and maintain their livelihoods.”

Tshepo Madlingozi, director of the Centre for Applied Legal Studies, is quoted in the joint statement as saying: “It is important that the government understands that this is not a time to encourage or perpetuate any form of intolerance. Neither will there ever be a time to do so.”

Other forms of welfare assistance can be found from local Community Action Network (CAN), churches and masjids (mosques), according to non-profit organisation Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town. The aims of CAN include sharing useful, verifiable official updates, resources and toolkits that help to build a community response. TOJ

*The names are not the source’s actual names. Reporting by Gaby Ndongo. Editing by Kupakwashe Kambasha. Feature image by Matteo Paganelli on Unsplash.

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