Last week I was elated at the news that some refugee children had aced their Botswana General Certificate of Secondary Education (BGCSE). My excitement faded upon learning that we have no provision for the sponsorship of refugee children to access tertiary education.
A quick reference to the Constitution reminded me of a fact I already knew. The Constitution permits discrimination on the basis of citizenship. It does not say that government cannot support refugee children. Nor does it say that those that have fallen upon hard times and have come knocking on our doors for hospitality can only be given shelter from the sun and rain. It simply says that government has an unfettered discretion not to extend the same socio-economic rights enjoyed by citizens to non-citizens. It is not a strange provision. It seems to be a globally accepted that in some respects, discrimination on the basis of citizenship is permissible. In South Africa, their Constitutional Court has ruled that some times of socio-economic rights cannot be denied to the foreigner without doing violence to key constitutional values. I am aware that theirs is a post-liberal dispensation blessed with progressive judges. I am equally aware that our bench is largely rule based and conservative and that progressive thought is viewed generally, as judicial activism. A legal challenge for socio economic rights of a refugee child would almost certainly be treated with scorn and sarcasm. Even derision.
In the deafening noise of the ever growing presidential clash of arms, I hope and indeed wish, that the belligerents may press the pause button and give the welfare of those poor kids a thought. We are a nation that values humanity, and for decades, we have held ourselves out to the world as a just and compassionate nation. Compassion is not about admitting someone to your home and abandoning them to their woes. Nor is it about giving them your bedroom and its comforts and sleeping on the floor in the back-house. It is about going as far as you reasonably can to make sure that their dignity, already in tatters, is as far as circumstances permit, restored and preserved. It is inconsistent with our values to give the stranger the barest minimum of comforts and deny them the opportunity to hope and to dream.
The humane treatment of refugees begins with giving them a change to dream again. Ours should be a nation with a big heart, and I am certain that we can be a continental leader in that respect because that is the natural essence of our being.
I remind that these are vulnerable kids who by reasons beyond their control, and for faults not their own, find themselves growing up and having to survive in a country not their own. Their situation is a hard one and is sad enough as it is. The least we can do is to show them that we care and that we wish to be a part of the solution to their unfortunate circumstances.
I am reminded, as a Christian, that Christ himself was a refugee in Egypt at a tender age. It therefore behooves all Christians to look at refugees with empathy. For our Master himself was once similarly circumstanced. We can do better than this.
I plead with His Excellency the President, and civil society in general, to come up with interim interventions on how these children may be helped. The University of Botswana, The Botswana International University of Science and Technology and other institutions of higher learning also have a moral duty in that regard. Their claims ring hollow, if they cannot show that their core values are anchored on humanity and the pursuit of social justice through education. I do not as a private citizen, shirk from that obligation.
The upliftment of these children will not only benefit their families but will give hope to many other children similarly circumstances. They will know that refugee status is not a blind alley to a state of hopelessness. That, in the night of their misery, there is still a place for dreams and that they have as much humanity as Batswana children with whom they attend school. Very importantly, it will send a message to the world as to who we are as a people and what we stand for. We cannot fail this moral test.
Someday these children will return to their countries. It lies in the womb of futurity where their stars will finally fall. Nelson Mandela once travelled on a Tanzanian passport as a refugee, wanderer, and fugitive from injustice. South Africans will forever remember what Tanzania, Libya and Cuba were to them in their darkest hour. I say that we must, as a country, not shut the doors of socio-economic justice upon the faces of refugees on grounds of citizenship. Yes, international law only asks for a minimum from host countries. But that is simply to ensure that refugees are not turned away as economic burdens. We may not be an affluent country with excess to throw away but we surely have enough to share. Ours is not an overly burdensome refugee population.
Let us all join hands and give the refugee child hope and an opportunity for tertiary education. That is the least we can do for humanity at a time when presidents are preaching xenophobia and building walls to separate people.