New policy in pipeline for migrants

The regularisation of Zimbabwean nationals is just the start of South Africa’s brand-spanking new immigration policy—and integral to the plan will be a drive to separate economic migrants from genuine asylum seekers.

It’s also the start of a process that will require nationals from neighbouring countries to register with government as well, Deputy Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba told the Mail & Guardian this week.

“We have to deal with the challenge of economic migrants coming to South Africa,” Gigaba said. “Deportation was ineffective. It was like throwing water into a bottomless hole and never seeing it fill up.”

He said the country needed a policy framework to deal with unskilled economic migrants who are clogging up the asylum-seeking system.

“A disproportionate number of applications are simply unfounded,” he said.
They were purely and simply economic migrants, not asylum seekers.

Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma hinted this week in Geneva at a United Nations Humanitarian Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) meeting that government wanted a more humanitarian, but at the same time well-documented, approach to economic migrants.

“As South Africa, we have a positive approach to migration. It will contribute to our economic, social and cultural development,” she said. “Indeed, many of the big economies were and continue to be built by migrants.”

She said progress had been made in the review of South Africa’s overall immigration policy. “The mixed migratory flows into South Africa continue to pose a challenge and as a result we have begun the review of our immigration policy.”

In June this year the UNHCR revealed that, with more than 222 000 new claims in 2009, South Africa has emerged as the largest asylum destination in the world.

Gigaba said a special dispensation was needed to deal with economic migrants and, as a result, permits were now being issued to domestic workers, gardeners and seasonal workers on farms, who previously had fallen through the gaps.

Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, the chairperson of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA), said earlier this year: “The refugee system is overwhelmed because South Africa does not provide alternative paths to migration for many economic migrants.

“Reform of the refugee system will not improve the situation until immigration policy is changed to regulate the flow of economic migrants so that they have acceptable alternatives and are not forced to enter the asylum-seeker system.”

A recent report by the Forced Migration Studies Programme at Wits University highlighted serious deficiencies in the status determination process, in part stemming from the demands being placed on the system by economic migrants.

As a result of these deficiencies, individuals with valid asylum claims were being rejected and returned to life-threatening situations in violation of South Africa’s international obligation to provide protection to refugees, the report warned.

Gigaba said his department was evaluating the Zimbabwean registration process to see what would be needed when other nationalities were called upon to have themselves documented.

He expected the process to open for other nationalities, including Mozambicans, Swazis and Lesotho nationals, next year. But, he said, “the pressing problem is Zimbabwe”.

The current strategy took wings during the tenure of former home affairs director general Mavuso Msimang. He said the main concern was Zimbabwean migrants fleeing their country because of the dire economic situation in the country.

“In many instances the Zimbabwe migrants, most without skills, classified themselves as asylum seekers,” he said. “Due to our international obligations, we had to allow the people to apply and stay in South Africa while we assessed their applications.” It led to massive congestion at home affairs offices around the country.

“We found that in 90% of cases, the economic migrants were not being persecuted as they had claimed. They had no case,” he said. “But this verification took two years.”

In the meantime the applicant was issued with a three-month permit, which could be extended every three months until the verification process was completed.

“It was chaotic,” he said. “It simply did not work and we came to the realisation that we needed a policy to differentiate between asylum seekers and those merely seeking employment.”

He said it was also a security risk to have so many undocumented people in South Africa and it put pressure on service delivery because the government simply did not know how many people to cater for.

A high-level source at home affairs told the M&G this week that although the documentation of Zimbabweans should be welcomed, the department had put itself under a lot of pressure with its end-of-year deadline.

“Realistically, this process can be completed only in a year, where-after they can begin to look at other nationals.”

“Somalis, though very vocal, [are in the country in] small numbers,” the source said.

The other significant community is Congolese, who are considered true asylum seekers because of the instability in their country.

The insider said that any South African migrant policy, especially with regard to Zimbabwe, was just a stop-gap measure and that it was the nationals’ own countries that would provide the ultimate solution by becoming politically stable.

Last week the new Immigration Amendment Bill was tabled in Parliament.

Gigaba said that though all immigration policies were related, the Bill dealt more with permanent residence than the temporary residence the current interventions of the department was trying to address.

NGOs warned that the Bill’s tabling might be premature as Home Affairs was still in consultation on its immigration strategy. The Bill seeks to revise the types of work permits being issued, creating a new category of permit for critical skills, among others. There were concerns that the draft Bill would make it too complicated for skilled workers to come to South Africa.

The Democratic Alliance’s deputy shadow minister of home affairs, Masizole Mnqasela, said that although it supported the reforms in Home Affairs, it would not support the Bill in its current form.

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