Life, interrupted: No Citizenship, No Financial Aid: Refugee students in SA get raw deal
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme received almost half a million applications for the funding of higher education in 2019. Among those who need not bother applying, however, are students who do not have a South African ID book. The idea that financial aid should be reserved for South African citizens might seem fair enough on paper — but when you consider the case of refugees or asylum seekers, everything starts to look more morally complicated.
Natasha Chigamba is 20 years old, and for almost half her life she has lived in South Africa.
Born in Zimbabwe, Chigamba was orphaned at seven and sent to live with her grandmother. There, her living situation quickly became abusive, to the point where her life was endangered.
When Chigamba was 11 years old, she was smuggled out of her grandmother’s house by an aunt and taken to live in South Africa.
“I kind of ran away,” Chigamba says softly.
In Cape Town, Chigamba was taken in by another aunt, and began a new life.
“I got an asylum [seeker] status and started schooling in Grade 6,” she says. “Everything was pretty smooth from the time I reached high school.”
Chigamba matriculated from Oaklands High School, in Lansdowne, Cape Town, with good marks. Her dream was to become a dentist. In a different situation, she would have been a shoo-in for financial aid: both on the basis of her aunt’s small income and her academic success.
But as a refugee in South Africa — a status she received from Home Affairs in July 2017 — she would quickly learn that her chances of receiving funding to study further were drastically limited.
To be considered for funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Chigamba needed a South African ID book. Funding from universities, and even private bursary schemes, is overwhelmingly restricted to South African citizens.
The University of the Western Cape (UWC), to which Chigamba was accepted as a first-year dental hygiene student in 2018, was not unsympathetic to her plight. Chigamba was permitted to negotiate a fee payment schedule which saw her pay small amounts each month. This enabled her to complete her first year’s studies.
“It’s very challenging, but I love it,” Chigamba says, in reference to her course.
In 2019, however, Chigamba’s situation is more perilous. She now has an outstanding amount of R21,900 in debt to pay off before she can register for her second year of studies. Once again, the doors of financial aid are largely closed to her.
“Classes start on Monday (21 January),” she says.
Chigamba’s problem is one shared by all refugees and asylum-seekers in South Africa who do not have personal relationships with wealthier benefactors who can sponsor university fees.
Abigail Dawson, a spokesperson for the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, told Daily Maverick: “In tertiary institutions, refugees and asylum seekers are often assumed to be international students who have to follow different registration, enrolment and fee-paying procedures.”Yet although international students are similarly ineligible for many local forms of financial aid — and often experience related hardships as a result — the situation for refugees and asylum seekers is different in one crucial respect.
“Refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing their country of origin for their lives and protection,” says Dawson.
Granting refugees and asylum seekers “the ability to live a fulfilling and productive, safe, life in South Africa,” says Dawson, “should be a premise on which tertiary education is made accessible [to them]”.
Refugee and migrant rights attorney Faith Munyati, from Lawyers for Human Rights, says that in practice, South African tertiary institutions are generally accepting of refugees and asylum seekers when it comes to their documentation status.
As in Chigamba’s case, financial aid tends to be the sticking point.
“There are a couple of bursaries that are open to refugee learners, but most are supplementary,” Munyati says. “The reality is that refugee learners’ funding opportunities are limited.”
Daily Maverick asked five South African tertiary institutions what funding opportunities were available for refugees and asylum seekers. The University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Johannesburg did not respond to requests for comment.
The University of Cape Town said that when it comes to undergraduate studies, funding “is limited towards supporting South African or SA permanent residency students”, though a small number of postgraduate scholarships are awarded on a competitive basis for foreign students.
Cape Peninsula University of Technology spokesperson Lauren Kansley said that asylum seekers and refugees have “limited options” when it comes to financial aid.
“We try to relieve the financial burden on this type of student by offering them work/study opportunities which allow 50% of their pay to go towards their student fees,” Kansley said.
“Ultimately the onus would be on the students themselves to find a private bursar who offers them funding. The majority of bursary opportunities specify South African students only.”
At UWC, meanwhile, spokesperson Gasant Abarder said that the institution “faces a high volume of students facing financial challenges”, of which refugees and asylum seekers “face particular challenges since they have restricted options available to them”.
Abarder noted that refugees and asylum seekers are eligible for university funding in South Africa through the UN Refugee Agency.UNHCR’s DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) programme currently supports 95 refugee students in South Africa. In a 2017 report, however, UNHCR’s Sharon Cooper was quoted as saying that the number of applications they receive “far exceeds the number of scholarships we are able to offer”.
Once “all avenues have been exhausted” In Chigamba’s case, says Abarder, “the Faculty of Dentistry will attempt to raise funding or sponsorship to assist with keeping the student in the system”.
Refugee rights advocates argue that there are compelling reasons for government funding bodies such as NSFAS to extend eligibility for funding to refugees.
“Refugees permanently reside in South Africa, and the government of South Africa has assessed their reasons for being in the country and determined that they have serious security risks and cannot return to their country of origin,” says Munyati.
“South Africa has accepted the responsibility of being their host country. This is the situation in Canada, which permits formally recognised refugees to apply for Canadian student loans.”
Allowing refugees to access NSFAS funding in the current climate — fraught with anti-immigrant tensions and the hangover of the #FeesMustFall protests — might well be an unpopular public decision. But until then, the likes of Chigamba risk falling through the cracks once again. DM