“What we’ve seen in the past few years is the securitization of immigration in South Africa,” said Roni Amit, a senior researcher at the Center for African Migration and Society at Johannesburg’s Wits University.
“There’s just this increased sense that we need to protect our borders and stop people from coming in. There’s this perception that there’s a flood of African migrants coming into the country and that we need to restrict that and keep them out and that they are a drain on the economy.”
The U.N. Refugee Agency [UNHCR] says South Africa receives more applications for asylum than any other country in the world.
The South African government’s unofficial attitude is that the country has enough problems of its own – including mass unemployment and poverty, frequent labor unrest and popular uprisings against the state’s failure to provide basic services – and cannot be expected to help shoulder the continent’s immense burden of migrants.
So immigration controls have been tightened significantly in recent years.
Economic migrants VS refugees
Amit maintained that the number of foreigners, especially those of African origin, said to be overwhelming South Africa is “inflated.”
“We did a study a few years ago and it found that there were four to five million foreigners in the country. That’s documented and undocumented,” she said.
UNHCR statistics show that most asylum applications in South Africa are from citizens of African countries that have been torn by crises, such as Zimbabwe, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. There’s also a steady stream of Angolans, Burundians, Ethiopians, Mozambicans and Rwandese, among others.
The agency said about 480,000 foreigners are currently seeking asylum in South Africa.
But the Department of Home Affairs [DHA] rejects most applications for refugee status on the basis that the applicants are merely looking for work in South Africa, not fleeing conflicts and political repression.
“Unfortunately the Department of Home Affairs likes to say that most people [migrants], like 96 percent coming [into South Africa], are economic migrants. But there’s actually no basis for that number,” said Amit. “There are some economic migrants, but there are also people who have fled persecution or have fled civil war. But those people aren’t getting recognized in the asylum system.”
No protection for refugees
The researcher said the DHA had recently combined the immigration and asylum systems.
“They should be two separate, parallel things,” Amit insisted. “Now they’ve merged and they are really using the asylum system as a method of immigration control. So there really is no effective refugee protection in the country anymore.”
The UNHCR said as of December 2010 the DHA had recognized 58,000 people as refugees. According to immigration analysts, the number hasn’t increased significantly since then, with the vast majority of asylum claims being rejected and the DHA not providing documentation that would allow migrants to temporarily remain in South Africa.
The DHA did not respond to repeated requests from VOA for comment but has previously denied that it’s purposefully withholding the necessary permits from foreigners seeking residence in South Africa.
Amit, however, said growing numbers of migrants, unable to secure documents, are “going underground,” with grave consequences for them.
“Then they’re at risk of arrest and detention and deportation and that’s really dangerous because then they’ll be deported back to the situation that they fled from, which was unsafe to begin with. There have been some stories of some Congolese who were sent back [to the DRC] and were detained and I think some were even killed.”
Knowing they have little chance of getting official papers, Amit said, more migrants are now crossing South Africa’s borders illegally. This makes them vulnerable to criminal gangs who prey on them, robbing, raping and murdering them.
Ignorance of the law
Amit recently completed a study of official refusals of residence to migrants at refugee reception offices across South Africa.
“In terms of the decisions [made by immigration officials], they get the law completely wrong. They have no understanding of the legal requirements for asylum and refugee status. They’ll cut and paste something [from the internet] from a country where the law’s completely different and it’ll say the exact opposite of what South Africa’s refugee law says,” said Amit.
Migrants often report that immigration officers demand that they produce identity documents in order to apply for refugee status, even though this is not a requirement to seek asylum in South Africa and is not part of the UN Refugee Convention.
“Whether that’s a lack of knowledge or just outright defiance of the law is hard to say,” Amit said.
She added that the DHA has also been denying entry to asylum seekers based on the assertion that they should have applied for asylum in the first “safe country” they reached. Yet no such principle exists in domestic or international law.
Migrants, analysts and immigration lawyers have maintained that corruption is widespread in DHA offices countrywide.
“Certainly there are a lot of people at Lindela, the detention center for foreigners, who were arrested with valid documents and who were asked for bribes by the police and by immigration officials,” said Amit.
The researcher insisted that the South African government’s apparent view of migrants as a threat to the country is counterproductive.
“There needs to be greater recognition of the fact that the migrants are contributing to the economy and they’re not just a drain on the economy,” she said.
Amit pointed out that with better mechanisms for regularizing the status of migrants entering South Africa, both the country and the continent would benefit.
“South Africa needs to realize it’s never going to be able to keep people out and just adopting increasingly restrictive measures aimed at just keeping people out is never going to be effective; it’s just going to be a waste of money. But I think until they have that change in mindset, it’s going to be difficult to accomplish anything,” she said.
At the moment, however, a stalemate plays itself out daily in South Africa and on the borders of Africa’s most powerful economy…with desperate migrants doing everything possible to enter a country that they’re convinced will offer them better lives, and state officials doing everything in their power to keep them out.
Listen to report on migrants in South Africa