South Africa is on a perilous path to making criminals of people on the move


Over the past decade, the world has been marked by increasingly restrictive responses by states to people on the move. Governments frame asylum seekers, refugees and migrants as a security threat and, in doing so, criminalise the most vulnerable and those seeking to help them —including humanitarian organisations.

The cumulative effect is a normalisation of heavy-handed restrictive policies that erode humanity. These entail containment policies that use fences, or plans for walls, or deterrence policies that use poor standards of reception and detention, as well as push-backs on land and sea.

Are these repressive state responses, which capitalise on domestic fears, the sole preserve of the West? Not at all.

A variation on the theme is playing out in many countries as well a sin contemporary South Africa. But will South Africans respond with equal outrage and reject moves toward politics and practices such as those adopted by the European Union, the United States and Australia?

In June, South Africans were outraged by the callousness of the US government’s separation of desperate families caught trying to cross the border. Many were fleeing deadly gang and other violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. This practice breached internationally recognised child rights and laws.

In just the past month, more than 600 people have drowned, or are presumed to have drowned, while trying to cross the Central Mediterranean, among them babies and toddlers. These tragedies, equal to half the total deaths so far in 2018 alone, took place when no nongovernmental organisation (NGO) rescue vessels were active on the Central Mediterranean — a consequence of political decisions obstructing and criminalising these life-saving operations.

In June, a cruel stand-off unfolded on the Mediterranean when Italy and Malta refused to allow 630 migrants and asylum seekers on a search-and-rescue vessel operated by SOS Méditerranée and Doctors Without Borders (MSF)to disembark. South Africans reacted with scorn to news of the Italian government’s cynical and inhumane refusal, which was underpinned by a political power play resulting from the EU’s broken asylum system. It is well known that Italy has led the charge in criminalising NGOs doing search and rescue work while supporting the Libyan coast guard to push desperate asylum seekers and migrants back into the hell of arbitrary detention, forced labour and extreme violence at the hands of smugglers they just left behind onshore.

In 2016, South Africans were equally appalled by the EU’s deal with Turkey that provided financial and political compensation to block vulnerable families fleeing the Syrian war from Europe’s shores and to accept deportees from detention camps in Greece. In effect, Europe abdicated its moral and legal responsibilities to provide asylum to those in great need — outsourcing the care of refugees to a country that may also deny them the right to claim asylum.

These developments demonstrate a perverse cycle at work: states respond with stiffer deterrence measures to close safe and legal channels, and public opinions harden.

Consequently, migrants and asylum seekers are pushed underground and into the hands of criminal networks, for whom business improves with every border control policy made. This, in turn, further criminalises them, escalating the coercive, securitised response by the state.

Along the borders of EU states with Balkan nations, MSF doctors and nurses have seen at firsthand the cruelty of some border guards and smugglers in the broken bones, cuts and bruises on our patients’ bodies — and how the rhetoric of criminalisation fuels tacit public support for inhumane treatment as a deterrent.

In Serbia, young people have been beaten, humiliated and attacked with dogs during their attempts to enter the EU. Harsh national legal frameworks promote deterrence and physical barriers, and force thousands of people into “administrative detention”.

South Africa’s callous policy

Over the years, MSF teams in South Africa have seen how policies of arrest, detention and deportation push vulnerable people “off-grid”, where invisibility serves as their best form of protection but depletes any hope of safety and access to healthcare in the face of the state’s increasingly securocratic approach.

Already in 2015, merely a month after a series of xenophobic attacks in KwaZulu-Natal, a sweeping police anti-crime action, Operation Fiela, sought to link irregular migration and violent crime —with police determined to arrest all undocumented individuals. This year, with the relaunch of Operation Fiela, police leadership declared its objectives were to “stamp the authority of the state”on derelict buildings in city centres where “the homeless and prostitutes” seek shelter, and to arrest violent criminals.

Last year,the Cabinet approved locating the department of home affairs within the security cluster (alongside justice, police, military and correctional services). It repositioned the department towards adopting a new, empowered border management approach and playing a strategic role in South Africa’s economic development.

Additionally, South Africa’s recently adopted white paper on international migration is evidence of a trajectory that will conflate migration legislation and policy with national security and economic development agendas. In crude terms, it proposes introducing interventions to “attract international migrants with skills and capital”, and shut out unskilled people from the region with more stringent measures, including criminalising the undocumented, who keep entering the country.

“South Africa has become an attractive destination for illegal immigrants (undocumented migrants, border jumpers, over-stayers, and smuggled and trafficked persons) who pose a security threat to the economic stability and sovereignty of the country,” the white paper states.

The language used and its emphases frames people — who are often highly vulnerable to abuse and frequently forced to forgo medical care — as a threat to the state, playing on the fears of South Africans facing troubled economic times.

Strangely, the white paper says that deterrence measures against irregular migration, such as detentions and the deportations, are too costly to maintain — and also envisions unburdening the asylum-seeker regime, which, it says, is “being abused by economic migrants, resulting in over 90% of the claims for asylum being rejected”.

What the white paper proffers is establishing asylum seeker processing centres at borders, where people will be profiled and accommodated according to their risk level: “Low-risk asylum seekers may have the right to enter or leave the facility under specified conditions.”This raises the question of how people will be treated who are not deemed “low risk” and how this is to be determined.

The passing of the Border Management Agency Bill by the National Assembly last year set in motion the creation of a centralised authority with sweeping powers over South Africa’s ports of entry, including policing and customs. Legal experts have raised concern about extensive powers of search, seizure and arrest with or without a warrant contained in the Bill, which could lead to the abuse of vulnerable people and asylum seekers. The Bill is under consideration by the National Council of Provinces.

South Africa subscribes to a non-encampment policy and the principle of non-refoulement (not sending people back into the peril they escaped in their country of origin) butthis Bill is cause for worry. Already thousands of asylum seekers around South Africa struggle to update their documentation at the three remaining refugee reception offices (Musina, Pretoria and Durban), while the department of home affairs drags its feet in reopening offices in Cape Town and Port Elizabeth after high court orders compelling it to do so.

South Africa’s path is eerily reminiscent of some of what we have witnessed in Europe and other parts of the world. And now the central question facing South Africa is whether it wants to provide protection to vulnerable populations, or if it seeks protection from them.

South Africans now face a challenge: stand up to prevent a roll-back of protections that vulnerable people require when they flee persecution and unliveable conditions back home, or witness the institutionalised erosion of humanity and dignity we’ve seen globally. It could well become a case of suffering being out of sight, out of mind, out of my country.

Agnes Musonda is president of MSFSouthern Africa and Liesbeth Schockaert is its migration coordinator for Southern Africa

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