Cablegate: South Africa Debates Immigration & Border Policy

Published: Wed 16 Jul 2008 07:07 AM
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1. In the aftermath of recent xenophobic violence, public
debates (reftel) highlighted unresolved problems and wide
divisions on immigration policy and border management.
Stoked by alarmist media reports, South African society often
misperceived foreign migrants as a burden or threat rather
than a potential source of benefit. The Department of Home
Affairs (DHA) was seen as ineffective in immigration
administration, not least (by its own admission) in the use
of deportation as a main tool to combat irregular migration.
There was fundamental disagreement on how loosely or tightly
SA's borders could or should be managed, with DHA favoring a
soft stance ("management," not "control") while others argued
every state was duty-bound to control its borders. In the
absence of effective SAG controls, citizens could continue to
counter unrestricted immigration by vigilante means.
2. Poloff attended two panel discussions of xenophobia's
root causes and possible solutions. The first was hosted by
the Institute of Security Studies (ISS) on June 5 with Deputy
Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba; South African Human
Rights Commission (SAHRC) Chairman Jody Kollapen; and South
African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) Deputy
Chairman Moeletsi Mbeki (brother of President Thabo Mbeki).
The second was a high-powered debate held at Witswatersrand
(Wits) University on June 17 with ANC Executive Committee
member Valli Moosa; Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool;
University of SA (UNISA) Vice Chancelor Barney Pityana; the
Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)'s Wilmot James; and
policy analyst Ebrahim Khalil-Hassen. End Summary.
Immigration A Blessing, Not A Curse
3. Millions of African and other immigrants have come to
South Africa seeking new lives in the fourteen years since
the end of apartheid. Zimbabwe alone is the source of
probably close to three million new arrivals. Other main
sources have been poor and unstable conflict zones such as
Mozambique, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo,
Somalia, and Nigeria. Many African immigrants bring
critically needed technical and professional skills that are
in short supply in SA. The DRC Ambassador told poloffs that
a significant percentage of Kinshasa's professional elite are
resident in SA, but local immigration policy does not allow
them to work in their fields. Highly educated Zimbabwean
professors and engineers swell the ranks of the working poor,
as domestic workers, waiters, and gardeners. Somalis are
often market traders and shopkeepers.
4. Participants in the two panels felt a need to change
public (mis)perceptions of migrants as a social bane and
burden, while encouraging awareness of the positive benefits
of immigration. Malusia Gigaba said alarmist media reports
of "floods" and "swarms" of aliens had fed a perception of
all foreigners as sources of crime, drug traffic, and
unemployment, and a net drain on resources. In truth, he
said, Southern Africa had a rich history of migration -- a
mix of refugees and asylum seekers, economic migrants,
skilled workers, and students -- but public conflation of
regular with irregular migration made all foreigners
vulnerable to stigmatization and mistreatment. The SAG must
improve asylum processing, said Gigaba, and help the public
Qimprove asylum processing, said Gigaba, and help the public
to understand migration's benefits.
5. Jody Kollapen raised the notion of migrants' untapped
valuable skills. "We should see them as persons coming to
work to our benefit. We must move beyond a posture of
charity to one of partnership. Zimbabweans are skilled at
business; are there partnership possibilities? What
contribution can they make?" Wilmot James advocated
empowerment of NGOs to assist immigrants, noting that even
under the apartheid regime the DHA had previously provided
such funding.
Current Approach is "Futile"
6. SA has long and porous land borders with six countries.
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There are reports of migrants walking from as far away as the
Horn of Africa to enter SA avoiding official border
checkpoints. The equally long maritime border with the
Atlantic and Indian Oceans is underregulated and lightly
policed. As a regional hub of air traffic, SA's air links
with neighboring countries provide additional routes for
intending immigrants to enter and disappear among the local
population. While entries are recorded, data is not
correlated to exits, and overstays are not pursued.
7. Participants agreed the SAG's current approach to
immigration was ineffective. For starters, policy making was
stymied by an absence of data, according to Barney Pityana.
Some analysts estimated six million foreigners living
illegally in SA, while the SAG's figure was three million (as
claimed recently by ANC President Jacob Zuma) -- but in fact
no one knew the real number of immigrants in SA, nor their
origins, status, whereabouts, or activities. DHA's Gigaba
cited statistics of 312,000 deportees in 2007, but this was
"only a slice" and included repeat offenders. Deportation
was costly and ineffectual, as irregular migrants kept
returning. Kollapen concurred, summing up today's practices
of arrest, detention, and deportation as "futile." En route
to Mozambique, he had watched deportees jump off his train
and meet taxis to return to work the same day.
8. DHA's endless delays on processing applications for
political asylum and work permits perpetuated these
round-trip cycles by denying migrants legitimate status or
legal means to remain. The DHA, by SAG's own account, is one
of the most troubled and least efficient of the cabinet
ministries. Ineffectual leadership and major managerial
staffing gaps further erode its capacity. Corruption is a
major problem, and international security agencies have
identified or captured criminal and terrorist operatives in
possession of apparently bona fide SA travel documents. The
DHA's level of customer service is dismal -- months to issue
a passport or national I.D., and potentially years for a
refugee's application for residency or asylum.
SAG: Border "Management" not Control
9. Despite consensus on DHA's problems, speakers disagreed
on future solutions. (Note: such discussions carry a moral
and historical subtext -- the association of tight controls
with apartheid, versus the ANC's lowering of barriers for
fellow Africans as an expression of solidarity and gratitude
for African support during the long liberation struggle. End
Note.) The more laissez-faire view was that migrant flows
were inevitable, and the right approach was "management" not
"control." Pityana asserted, "Securing borders is
counterproductive. We need an immigration management system
in cooperation with neighboring countries. Forty-five
million is not overpopulated; South Africa can absorb more."
10. As a member of the South African Development Community
(SADC), SA is in the process of adopting the 2005 Draft
Protocol on Facilitation of Movement of Persons within the
Community, which some analysts believe will exacerbate
illegal migration. The Protocol includes, inter alia, a
single regional visa enabling free travel throughout. In
anticipation of hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the SAG
proposes to allow all African fans to enter SA without visas.
Qproposes to allow all African fans to enter SA without visas.
11. Deputy Minister Gigaba took a similar view, stressing
regional realities. "Many SADC countries have no resources
to stem the flow, nor do they make any attempt. By SADC
protocols, quotas will increase and then disappear. Human
movement is due to widen, not become more restricted...
Long-term we cannot deny the disappearance of borders. The
worst response would be conservativism. It's about
management, rather than combating and control, with
multilateral cooperation and coordination among the three SAG
tiers (national, provincial, local) in partnership with
neighboring countries... Sealing borders will not work. It
is failing in the US and the EU."
Opposing View: Borders Must Be Enforced
12. Others favored a stronger stance, arguing that border
controls were a fundamental duty of any state. HSRC's James
urged, "We do require secured borders, with controls that are
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fair, humane, and constitutional. This is government's
responsibility within the rule of law." Having chaired a
task force on this topic, he felt sure that even SA's
extensive borders could be monitored with available
technologies, focused on most frequent crossing points.
"Border control is not the whole answer," James said, "but it
is a key part." Ebrahim Rasool charged the DHA of not living
in the real world. "A Home Affairs turnaround is urgently
needed," he said, "to get us out of the twilight zone" on
immigration and border management.
13. The most strident critique came from Moeletsi Mbeki, who
blamed SAG "incompetence" for xenophobic violence. On
immigration, he said, "Borders are not 'flexible;' they must
be enforced, as a modern state. If you think you don't need
to control borders you are a half-state, and the consequence
is the recent events. Citizens will enforce the laws by
these methods. If the government feels this is 'flexible,'
you will get what you have just seen."
14. SAG and DHA statements ignore negative experiences of
other countries with permissive attitudes to their borders.
Immigration is a hot-button issue among SA voters, who expect
action, not resignation. SAG ignores the issue at its peril.
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