COVID-19 increases vulnerabilities for asylum seeking and refugee women in South Africa

9 June, 2020


Written by Jane Freedman, Tamaryn Crankshaw and Marcia Mutambara

Our recent article in SRHM highlighted the vulnerabilities of asylum seeking and refugee women in South Africa to gender-based violence, and their lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services. The current COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to significantly worsen these women’s situation and leave them in an even more vulnerable position.

Our research noted that despite the largely progressive nature of South Africa’s refugee laws (notably the Refugee Act of 1988), the ways that policies are implemented, mean that asylum seekers have great difficulties in claiming their rights and in gaining legal refugee status (Masuku, 2020). Women seeking asylum find it very hard to get an appointment with Home Affairs to make their asylum claim, sometimes being asked to travel across the country to another city to do so. Even for those who do succeed in making a claim, many are rejected leaving them without legal status. The fact that asylum claims are recorded on a family basis, with women’s claims being linked to those of their husband makes them legally dependent on a partner who might abandon them or be a perpetrator of violence against them.

A large majority of the women we interviewed had been victims of sexual and gender-based violence in their country of origin, on their journey and/or on arrival in South Africa. Their lack of legal status, and the fact that the South African state provides no support for accommodation or subsistence increases their vulnerabilities. Many of the women had slept on the streets through lack of alternative accommodation or had accepted sexual relations in return for somewhere to sleep. Their only source of income was through potentially finding work in the informal sector where they faced discrimination and exploitation. Lack of legal documentation and lack of money meant that they felt they could not access health services for their sexual and reproductive health needs, and when they attempted to do so, they were often met with xenophobia and rejection.

These existing conditions of vulnerability have been exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic and by the reactions to it. South Africa has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 cases on the African continent and, due to the exponential increase in the number of cases, it was also one of the first African countries to put in place a lockdown and other restrictive measures to try and reduce the number of new infections. The lockdown has impacted on the social and economic activities of country. Since the lockdown, the low income earning South African households, informal traders and small businesses have been greatly affected. Asylum seeking and refugee women whose only source of income was in the informal sector, have thus seen their resources disappear. The women who were reliant on this informal income for paying rent and bills, as well as for food for them and their children now face huge challenges. Even though the South African government has put in place relief mechanisms to assist small and informal businesses and the most vulnerable amongst the population, these mechanisms apply to South African citizens only. Food parcels are currently only provided to citizens (Human Rights Watch, 2020). Migrants and refugees have been excluded, leaving them stranded with no form of income or support. It has been left to civil society and NGOs to try and provide what support they can in these challenging times.

For asylum seeking and refugee women, the lockdown has also exposed them to increasing risk of SGBV.  The lockdown regulations have required people to self-isolate and remain in their homes. However, for these women, homes are often also sites of abuse and violence and during the current crisis, stress over the uncertainty of sustainable future livelihoods can increase domestic violence. At the same time, services to support survivors are being disrupted and, in some cases, made inaccessible.

The South African Police Services reports during the first weeks of lockdown revealed that there has been a sharp increase in the number of cases of gender-based violence reported (Lefafa, 2020). Research has shown that most asylum seeking, and refugee women do not report cases of abuse and domestic violence due to fear of police authorities and during this lockdown period, they are even more at risk in confined spaces with their perpetrators.

The social and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa and the world over has created an unprecedented crisis. While the efforts of the government to provide food and economic relief to vulnerable citizens are commendable it is also important for the South African national response plans to include support for asylum seekers and refugees, and to take into account gendered inequalities to ensure that women are not made even more vulnerable. This time of crisis highlights the need to move beyond distinctions and discriminations based on nationality and citizenship and ensure that all those living in South Africa have the means to survive without fear of violence.


Please note that blog posts are not peer-reviewed and do not necessarily reflect the views of SRHM as an organisation.