Hard line on immigration ‘no answer’

Tighter control over immigration — as has been suggested by African National Congress (ANC) policy adopted at the Mangaung conference in December last year — will not solve South Africa’s concerns over jobs and crime, but will make these problems worse, according to refugee rights groups and researchers.

A range of civil society organisations this week made presentations to Parliament’s portfolio committee on home affairs, which has begun a process of reviewing immigration policy.

The committee will make recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs, which is to review the Immigration Act of 2002.

The Mangaung conference noted that "the presence of undocumented migrants in the Republic poses both an economic and security threat to the country". It also said that there was "a need to balance the inward flow of low-skilled labour to curtail the negative impact it has on domestic employment".

The conference resolved to overhaul South Africa’s immigration policy, which until now has been one of the most liberal in the world. But, the country’s openness to asylum seekers, together with corruption of border and home affairs officials, has resulted in widespread abuses of the asylum system and a large number of fraudulently documented or undocumented migrants.

But several presentations to the committee warned that a hard line on immigration, as has been tried by the US and European Union (EU), often achieves the opposite of what is intended. Zaheera Jinnah, speaking on behalf of the Africa Centre for Migration, said trends towards "securitisation of migration management" — which tends to involve heightened border controls, restricting entry and increased detention and deportation — would not help address the key concerns that South Africans have over jobs and crime.

In the US and the EU, for instance, tighter controls did not decrease the number of migrants but increased their legal vulnerability. The result of increasing the vulnerability of migrants under the law made them less likely to report abuse, and they would be willing to work for less, she said. The result would be that domestic wages would be forced even lower.

Similarly, greater number of undocumented migrants would increase rather than reduce crime, she said. Undocumented migrants were ideal targets for criminals who are less likely to be investigated or convicted for attacking migrants.

In its submission to the committee the South African Law Commission suggested that one approach to dealing with migration would be to put the enforcement focus onto employers. As the object of illegal migration is to secure jobs, employers, who are required to register with the authorities, should be required to meet the permit requirements.

  • This article first appeared in Business Day on 14 February 2013