New travel rules for kids are impractical but necessary

Angelique Ruzicka looks at the new travel rules for parents flying into and out of South Africa with kids and finds out what can be done about the Department of Home Affairs backlog on unabridged birth certificates. She asks for advice about how to complain about inefficiencies at the department and relays her own experiences.

The first thought I had when the Department of Home Affairs announced that all parents (including foreign nationals) travelling into and out of South Africa had to produce an unabridged birth certificate when travelling with kids, or be told that they can’t travel, was: “How are those parents going to get hold of these documents in time for the holidays?”

After experiencing firsthand the delays ad inefficiencies at the department I expected to see disappointed parents being forced to cancel or postpone their trips and fight to get their money back from travel agents. But happily, parents keen on holidaying with their kids this winter have been given a respite now that the government has delayed new child travel laws that they announced this month and wanted implemented from the 1 July.

The new rules caused an uproar as parents with travel plans dashed to make unabridged birth certificate applications only to find out that many working at the department were unaware of this announcement and that issuing the documents can take as long as six weeks, if not longer.

But in the same week, Home Affairs promptly issued a statement saying that it has provided a grace period to allow children to travel with parents or guardians without an unabridged birth certificate until end of September 2014. But from the 1 October the rules will be enforced.

Why have these rules been introduced?
The Department of Home Affairs said it has introduced these rules in a bid to combat criminal acts involving children. “From 01 October 2014, the requirement for an unabridged birth certificate for children travelling with parents will come into effect for the safety of children, including their protection from child trafficking, abduction and kidnapping,” said the department in statement.

Unfortunately, Home Affairs has a point. According to a report in the Weekend Post in October 2011 100,000 people are being trafficked into, through and from South Africa every year. Children have been reported as the most vulnerable to being trafficked.
A Pretoria News article published in May 2013 found that traffickers pick on children aged between nine and 15 years because they are more compliant and will do things out of fear. Back then the article says that between 20,000 and 30,000 children are prostituted and that the figure now stands well over 45,000 a year. I am sure it’s much higher now.

But are the new rules practical?
According to the Board of Airline Representatives of South Africa (Barsa) our country is the only one in the world mandating this rule for travellers by air. While rules for combating child crime have been generally welcomed they have been criticised for their impracticality. This is mainly because the Department of Home Affairs is struggling with a backlog of unabridged birth certificates.

“I don’t understand the rationale, it’s a very inefficient policy considering that department’s incompetence. The ANC government are very good with creating policies but bad at their implementation. They borrow ideas from the developed world but then find that they don’t have the infrastructure in place to support it,” points out Hannif Hoosen, the Democratic Alliance’s Shadow Minister of Home Affairs.

I’ve personally been at the mercy of having to wait for documents from Home Affairs. While I was privileged enough to get an unabridged birth certificate when my son was born last year the application process for my unabridged marriage certificate was a long one. It was only at the beginning of this week (10 June 2014) that I was told that my unabridged marriage certificate was ready for collection and this was after I had made the application for it in May 2013.

Barsa also pointed out that the rules could cause much confusion and impact the country’s income from tourism. “Based on 2013 numbers, 536,000 foreign visitors could be denied travel and, conservatively, the lost income to South Africa from these high value visitors could be over R6.8 billion annually inevitably leading to job losses in the South African tourism sector. Additionally, no airline can afford a 20% drop in passenger numbers on routes that already operate with razor thin margins so this policy will likely lead to suspension or complete loss of air service to South Africa,” says Barsa.

What can you do if there is a delay in your application?
There are various things you can do if there is a delay in the processing of your unabridged birth certificate but you may not get the results that you want. The advice from Home Affairs is that you should get hold of the area manager first to complain. Following that you can complain to the provincial managers.

Calling and emailing the call centre of Home Affairs is also possible but for me this was a fruitless exercise. After several emails and calls and promises that they would deal with the delay with my unabridged marriage certificate by ‘escalating it to head office’ I gave up.

In a last desperate attempt I tweeted my disapproval of Home Affairs’ services and called the area manager again to complain. Not long after that, I got a call from their call centre to say that my documentation was ready. I am not sure to this day whether any of that made a difference or whether it was just a coincidence that my papers were ready for collection shortly after my social media complaint and my call to the provincial manager of the Western Cape.

When I asked Hoosen what his suggestion to parents would be if they experience severe delays when dealing with the department he suggested writing to the minister or the director general, but added: “I wrote to the director general and the minister of Home Affairs myself to discuss the new rules but have not had a response to date. If members of parliament can’t get hold of them then how would the average parent be able to get a response?”

To find get the contact details for your provincial manager, click here.

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