PRESS STATEMENT | “South Africa belongs to all who live in it,” but stateless and undocumented children are still fighting to belong

Date: 13/11/2020

Elizabeth was born in Lesotho to a Basotho mother and a South African father. She moved to South Africa when she was a small child. South Africa is her home and where she has started a family of her own.

Elizabeth has been fighting for recognition as a South African citizen for her whole adult life. She has never been issued with a birth certificate or an ID document and, as a result, has never had a formal job. Because Elizabeth continues to battle for recognition and belonging, she cannot register her son, Neo’s, birth.

Elizabeth’s status in South Africa has resulted in marginalisation and exclusion for both her and her family. Neo, who is 10, dreams of becoming a policeman. He is a naturally gifted runner and loves to race. Elizabeth, reflecting on how their lack of documentation effects Neo’s life says, “he loves to run but he is never allowed to compete because he does not have a birth certificate”. 

Statelessness has been described as one of the most forgotten human rights crisis; however, there has been increased awareness on this phenomonmen in recent years. According to international law, a stateless person is defined as:

“…a person who is not recognised as a national by any State under the operation of its law.”

Statelessness inherently results in exclusion and marginalisation and effectively renders the affected person a national “nowhere” and a foreigner “everywhere”. The exact number of stateless persons in the world is unknown due to the nature of the problem, but 4.2 million persons are known to be stateless as of 2019. In South Africa, the stateless population also overlaps with the undocumented population. While being undocumented is not the same as being stateless, the lack of documentation to prove identity and nationality can place someone at risk of statelessness.

The consequences of statelessness are vast and severe as it can adversely affect a person’s ability to access basic human rights and to participate fully in the economic, social and political life of a country they live in and consider home.  There are increased ramifications for children as statelessness can result in a child being locked out of opportunities and robbed of their dreams, like Neo. Stateless children are denied basic human rights like education, health care and social assistance and they are forced to live on the fringes of society, invisible and forgotten.

In 2011, South Africa (along with more than 60 States) submitted a pledge to take action to address statelessness through accession to the United Nations conventions on statelessness at a ministerial-level conference convened by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This new level of interest on statelessness by States prompted the UNHCR to launch the #IBELONG Campaign in November 2014 with a goal to eradicate statelessness in ten years by 2024. In 2019, South Africa submitted a further pledge at the first-ever Global Refugee Forum to promote civil registration and prevent statelessness.

This is a commendable effort by South Africa as poor civil registration and the lack of birth registration in particular, is one of the prominent causes of childhood statelessness in South Africa. The Constitution guarantees the right of every child to birth registration and the national birth registration rate is over 80%, but there are currently thousands of children in South Africa without birth certificates.

In Chisuse v Director-General of Home Affairs (CCT 155/19, 22 July 2020), the Constitutional Court re-iterated that the preamble of the Constitution unequivocally states that, “South Africa belongs to all who live in it.” This rings shallow for stateless and undocumented children in South Africa. The court further affirmed that nationality is more than a legal status and “…it goes to the core of a person’s identity, their sense of belonging in a community…”

November 2020 marks the sixth anniversary of the #IBELONG Campaign. As the campaign enters its final stretch, we are called to re-double our efforts to champion statelessness and to ensure that no one, including our children, has to suffer the indignities of not belonging.

It is with the above in mind that Lawyers for Human Rights calls upon the government of South Africa to:

  • ensure that every child’s right to birth registration is realised and every child receives a birth certificate regardless of their parent’s nationality or documentation status
  • ensure that all stateless children and orphaned or abandoned children in South Africa can secure a legal pathway to documentation
  • recognise and address the vulnerabilities and lack of legal pathways to documentation for unaccompanied and separated migrant children living in South Africa
  • ensure that birth registration services are accessible across South Africa (including at all health care facilities and in remote areas)
  • remove cumbersome and arbitrary requirements in the regulations to birth registration such as:
    • the requirement that only South African citizens should witness the birth of a child born outside of a health care facility or at home
    • the requirement that unmarried fathers cannot register the births of their children
    • the DNA test requirement for children born to unmarried parents or to foreign parent(s) with no option of a waiver or subsidy for those who cannot afford the costs of DNA tests
  • accede to the United Nations 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, in fulfilment of South Africa’s 2011 pledge

Lastly, we encourage all supporters of the #IBELONG Campaign to sign the open letter to end statelessness available at:

For more information, please contact Sharon Ekambaram, Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme Manager on 083 634 9824 or Thandeka Chauke, Statelessness Project Head on 060 378 2468.


Thank you for joining
Thank you for joining the LHR Newsletter, we will be in touch soon