The recent heated exchanges on the unabridged birth certificate required for minors entering South Africa and its effect on tourism have occupied centre space in the discussions on the new immigration regulations and overshadowed the impact of other equally disquieting sections. The consequence of the 2014 changes in immigration law six months into the current academic year is rather disturbing: the South African higher education sector has experienced a sharp drop in international student numbers.
At one university international student numbers have dropped by 600 in 2015 and at another international student numbers have declined by more than 25% compared with the previous year. Visiting scholars, postdoctoral fellows, international staff and university guests are also affected by the new immigration law.
This poses a serious threat to the internationalisation of South African higher education and arguably has a negative bearing on South African national, regional and international obligations. According to the minister of home affairs, the immigration regulations are in line with “the objective of managing immigration effectively and efficiently while protecting the security of our borders”.
Though we are mindful of the contemporary challenges of global mobility and security interests and South Africa’s right to enforce its legitimate safety and security concerns, we believe there is a duty to implement efficient and effective processes that limit the adverse impact of visa application processes to a minimum.
Concerns have also been expressed that students applying at different South African embassies are facing unequal treatment in the processing of visas and imposition of conditions. Visa Facilitation Services has been appointed as the agent of the department of home affairs. Overall, it has become more challenging to obtain a study visa, and many students have been unable to meet the new, stricter and more costly requirements.
Earlier this year, hundreds of students enrolled for degrees were unable to return in time to continue their studies and consequently had to suspend their studies. Formerly legal students became illegal as their visas expired before legitimate extension requests were adjudicated and, owing to insufficient capacity at the private intermediary, Visa Facilitation Services, to allocate appointments to applicants for visa extensions in time.
An expired visa means that students are unable to cross the border without being declared “undesirable”. Remaining in South Africa without a valid visa leaves students in a precarious situation, rendering them vulnerable, insecure, depressed and with restricted movement, because of fears of being arrested and deported. Bank accounts directly linked to visa expiry dates are frozen and, with no access to money, students risk destitution. In some cases, students have been on standby for six months with nothing to do except wait for the visas that would enable them to leave the country legally.
These recent developments are in stark contrast to the letter and spirit of the 1997 SADC Protocol on Higher Education and Training, in which SADC members committed themselves to strengthening collaboration in education in the region. This legally binding regional treaty, to which South Africa is a party, commits state parties to “facilitate movement of students and staff from the region for purposes of study, research, teaching and any other pursuits relating to education and training”.
The parties agreed “to work towards gradual relaxation and eventual elimination of immigration formalities that hinder free student and staff mobility”.
The new practices are also problematic in light of the Constitution and other rights entrenched in human rights treaties to which South Africa is a party. In particular, the rights to education, freedom of movement, equality and administrative action that is lawful, reasonable and procedurally fair are affected.
Furthermore, the new developments jeopardise South Africa’s attractiveness as a destination for international students, as it puts its universities’ internationalisation at risk and adversely affects their ability to strengthen their global position.
The new immigration regime introduces limitations to academic mobility detrimental to skills development. Moving forward, it is essential that immigration law and practices are urgently reformed to ensure the human rights of international students and other international university stakeholders in South Africa are safeguarded and to ensure its universities remain globally competitive and can continue to internationalise their core purposes for the benefit of South Africa’s society and economy.
Necessary security checks should be executed efficiently and effectively, avoiding undue delays and with due regard for international students’ constitutionally entrenched rights.
To achieve this, we call on the department of home affairs and the leadership in the higher education sector to work together to resolve the current challenges immediately and to avoid further damage to the South African higher education sector.
Cornelius Hagenmeier is the director of the department of international relations at University of Venda, Orla Quinlan is the director of internationalisation at Rhodes University and Annette Lansink is the dean of the school of law at the University of Venda