SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Analysing the Complexities of the Case Management of Unaccompanied Minors from the point of view of social workers at the Polokwane Child and Youth Care Centres

Social intervention with minors generally requires a more sensitive and comprehensive approach due to the special vulnerability of this segment of the population. The protection and care of minors is a delicate process. This is why the work structured around achieving a balance in the different areas of children's vital development is of great importance. If we add the migratory element to this special vulnerability, we can affirm that a multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach most likely will be the most appropriate in these cases [3]. Taking this into account, we would expect the articulation of social services to effectively cover the needs of refugee and unaccompanied minors. In reality, however, different elements affect the implementation of good child protection systems. An example of this is provided in the first article of the latest edition of the AHMR journal, where the authors analyse the different challenges faced by social workers in assisting unaccompanied migrant children in Polokwane (South Africa) [1].

 AHMR Journal


The departure of these children from their countries of origin responds to multiple reasons: fleeing conflict, seeking better academic or economic opportunities and even as victims of human trafficking networks [2]. This diversity is an element that should be taken into account when designing protection strategies for these minors. Referring to Sobantu and Warria (2013), the authors Asha and Nkwana point out in the article some of the tools that exist in the South African legal framework and by which these young people are protected. These tools include the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (RSA, 1996), the Children's Act (2005) and the Refugees Act (1998) among others [2]. For more information on the scope of these normative tools see the introductory section of the document "Litigation in respect of undocumented children" in SIHMA’s Advocates’ Migration Brief series [4]. Although South Africa has a well-developed normative framework that broadly recognises the children’s needs and structures a network of laws for the care of children, Asha and Nkwana argues that the failure lies in the application of the tools for the implementation of this legislation by government institutions [1].

 This article highlights how the influx of unaccompanied minors has increased as a result of an increase in the number of foreigners entering the country, with the majority of these minors coming from South Africa's neighbouring countries [1]. With a total of approximately 76.8 thousand refugees in South Africa [5], unaccompanied minors are among the most if not the most vulnerable segments of this group. Through interviews and observation techniques, the authors have been able to identify some of the issues that social actors highlight as problematic in the process of effective care for children. As a consequence of the ineffective implementation of protection tools by the system, existing resources such as Child and Youth Care Centres (CYCCs) are overwhelmed. Social workers are overburdened by the number of cases and the various difficulties arising from the different gaps in the intervention processes. To analyse the weaknesses of the child care system, the authors rely on the structuring of the following points: the assessment of the general case management, the assessment of the efficiency of the case management system and the identification of the challenges social workers are facing [1].

 As a starting point for understanding the role of social workers, it is important to consider the definition of the profession itself. According to The International Federation for Social Workers (IFSW), social work is a profession that forges its actions in social change and development through the empowerment of people [3]. Under the premise of the defence of human rights, dignity and social justice, social work strives for the transformation of structures and contexts towards a society based on the principles of universal social welfare. To this end, social work draws on different disciplines that contribute to structure and apply the different theories that will shape the processes of intervention depending on the area of treatment. Due to the great variety of areas of work in the social dimension, working models vary from the local or micro to the global or macro perspective. This will undoubtedly influence the design of the work methodology, which will include developing the different ways of intervention from the values of defending fundamental rights, enhancing individual skills, and strengthening group cohesion perspectives [3].

 With the definition and objectives of the profession already established, it is clear that the protection of vulnerable populations and their basic rights is the baseline. Alongside the interpretation and application of the normative frameworks of the different contexts of action, a dual relationship begins in which groups and individuals work with social professionals in the quest to meet identified needs. While the training and skills of social professionals play an important role in aid relationships, the countries' own resources also play an important role. These resources are not only made up of comprehensive normative frameworks, but also include the tools that guarantee the fulfilment of fundamental rights [3]. For this reason, working with certain segments of the population can sometimes be a challenge for the professional, as is the case in South Africa, the geographical context of this article's review [1].

 However, the reality is that the South African regulatory framework around the phenomenon of unaccompanied migrant minors is established as a very broad and comprehensive body of legislation. The problems encountered by the professionals interviewed in the revised study manifested in the existence of different deficits that hindered the development of efficient social intervention processes. After conducting the interviews with the social workers, the authors were able to identify a series of points that are generally considered to be a blockage in the care of migrant minors [1]. The points identified were broadly related to three main blocks:

 Firstly, the lack of coordination between the different social systems. The lack of communication between the different institutions hindered the follow-up of cases and often perpetuated a process that could benefit from direct contact between social workers. The social workers interviewed stated that this communication deficit between the different institutions underlined the existence of gaps in the implementation of the different policies. This resulted in a poor management of cases that were often not updated or attended to and were stuck in a bureaucratic process that dragged on due to a lack of control and review by managers [1].

"Cases are not well managed. I submitted a case of a child from Nigeria in January 2019 to the ISS and even to date no response, feedback or update received. It is now three months; when making a follow-up, you only get one sentence: "We are still busy with the case." DSD is actually contributing towards not assisting these children according to the norms and standards of the Children's Act" (P10, social worker, 26 March 2019).


Secondly, the lack of official identification documentation of the children. The lack of identification documentation could be due to multiple reasons such as: losing them during transit between countries, leaving the country without notifying their parents and/or guardians or also due to the deterioration of the papers during the journey. This, added to the fact that in some cases erroneous or incomplete information was obtained from minors to avoid facilitating return procedures, made identification and contact with their families in their countries of origin difficult, hindered their inclusion in the education system, and prolonged their stay in CYCCs [1].

"They do not have documents and then it becomes a big challenge with us because at the end you don't know what to do with this child. The child can't be registered at a school; they can't get a birth certificate where you can say these children can be fostered and get a grant; you get stuck" (P8 supervisor, 14 March 2019).


Thirdly, the challenges in relation to social workers sometimes included the lack of basic communication tools such as telephones. This meant that they had to travel to other offices in order to carry out the tasks of contacting family members in other countries. The lack of language assistance also counts in these cases as a handicap for effective communication with the children and in relation to international communication in the process of contact with the children's families of origin. It also included the lack of specific training of social agents on the issue of unaccompanied minors, sometimes due to a lack of training or little support from management figures. These elements result in the lack of knowledge of certain legal avenues that could be useful for the protection of minors [1].

"Sometimes children are not willing to cooperate, not willing to either participate or give information. There is a lack of resources like telephones, so phoning other countries is a hassle; there are no landlines and sometimes one has to go to other offices to make calls" (P3, social worker, 27 April 2019).


All this could be summed up as particularly difficult in social work with minors due to the high demands that the field of child protection entails and the added element of migration. In addition to the difficulty of obtaining resources and successfully closing cases, the pressure around this sphere of work was perceived as high by the social workers interviewed for this review of the subject by Asha and Nkwana [1].

 Thanks to the assessment that the authors make throughout the document on the different difficulties that social workers encounter in the protection of unaccompanied minors, it is possible to identify the "weak points" of the current system of care and protection. This is presented as an opportunity to discuss the different vulnerabilities that affect this particular segment of the population, such as: access to care services for their fundamental rights; the recognition of a nationality; and their consideration as citizens in order to structure the protection system around their needs [7][8]. In addition, it is an opportunity to review the current tools and design proposals to improve the system of instruments, as the evidence so far underlines the need to improve the structure of intervention in order to efficiently influence the life processes of these unaccompanied minors [1] instead of solely focusing on the financial elements [9].

 On the bases of their findings of the authors Asha and Nkwana, they recommend [1]:

  • The respective government departments should allow unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors to apply for permits under section 31(2) (b) of the Immigration Act, which will be a sustainable solution, which will ultimately lead to a permanent solution for these minors.
  • The concerned government department should provide social work resources in order to render services and implement guidelines for the benefit of the foreign children whom they are obligated to protect.
  • The relevant social workers and care workers should be capacitated on different legislations that deal with unaccompanied and foreign children in order to ensure proper implementation of the law.
  • The responsible department should make an amendment to the Children’s Act to include unaccompanied minors in section 150 of the Act.
  • The concerned government department should develop a practice note that will effectively provide guidance in relation to the Refugees Amendment Act to its officials on procedures to follow when dealing with unaccompanied and foreign children.
  • There should be coordination and integration of services among the relevant government departments wherein each stakeholder plays their role, as mandated by their respective departments, to ensure that the rights of unaccompanied children of migrants and refugees are protected.

In summary, although the role of the social worker revolves around the defence of the human rights of individuals and communities, the lack of resources and/or the mismanagement of these resources can be a great burden on the development of intervention processes [1]. This is why the role of social agents can sometimes lean towards working to raise awareness of certain issues, such as the need to protect unaccompanied migrant minors in the face of the range of vulnerabilities to which they are exposed [6]. Greater knowledge of the conditions of these minors can have a positive impact on society's participation in order to promote attitudes of understanding, empathy, and solidarity.


James Chapman        and            Nicolette Pérez Verwer

SIHMA                                          SIHMA

Project Manager                           Research and Communications Intern



[1] Asha, A. (2021). Complexities in the Case Management of Unaccompanied Minors: Perceptions of Social Workers Practicing in the Polokwane Child and Youth Care Centres. African Human Mobility Review, 7(2). Available at:

[2] Anderson, K., Apland, K., & Yarrow, E. (2017, January). Unaccompanied and unprotected: the systemic vulnerability of unaccompanied migrant children in South Africa. In The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (pp. 361-389). Brill Nijhoff. Available at:

[3] Mathe, M. (2018). Experiences, challenges and coping strategies of unaccompanied migrant children in South Africa: guidelines for Social Work (Doctoral dissertation). Available at:



[4] Litigation in respect of Undocumented Children:

[5] Migration data portal:

[6] Statelessness of Migrant Children in South Africa and the Impact and Opportunity for Social Workers:

[7] The Impact Of Being An Undocumented Child:

[8] Caught in a Catch-22: Child Migrants in South Africa – Are short-term plans and implementation gaps putting foreign children at risk?:

[9] “Minister Lindiwe Zulu launches R19 Million Programme to protect unaccompanied and undocumented children” (15/12/2020):


Photo by Stijn Kleerebezem on Unsplash


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