/ 30 March 2020

Border walls don’t stop viruses, but a blanket amnesty might

The forgotten: Immigrants sometimes camp outside home affairs offices in ­Pretoria for days in order to get residency permits.
There’s little or no evidence that border walls stop virus outbreaks.


“Not that I’ve seen.”

On March 10 and in the midst of an outbreak of the coronavirus President Donald Trump tweeted out, “Going up fast. We need the Wall more than ever,” in reference to his controversial plans to build a wall on the country’s southern border with Mexico.

A day later, Business Insider reports lawmakers asked the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Robert Redfield if he knew of any scientific evidence that a wall would help stop the spread of the new coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.

He replied.

“Not that I’ve seen.”

On March 19, the South African Department of Public Works and Infrastructure Minister Patricia de Lille announced it would use fast-tracked emergency procurement procedures to erect a 40km-fence within a month at the Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe. The project is estimated to cost about R37-million.

There’s little or no evidence that border walls stop virus outbreaks.

No bacteria or virus — including the new coronavirus — stops to ask people about their documentation status or nationality before they strike. Neither should we in our efforts to curb the spread of the virus.

Yes, some foreigners are entitled to free healthcare

You wouldn’t know it by talking to many people but legislation including South Africa’s National Health Act guarantees many people — regardless of documentation or citizenship — the right to be treated just like an ordinary South African in the public health system.

For instance, any citizen from the 16 countries that make up the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regardless of documentation have the right to be treated just like South Africans at state hospitals and clinics, meaning that they are means tested for services in the same way as citizens. The same is applicable for asylum seekers and refugees with valid documentation, regardless of their country of origin.

And everyone regardless of documentation or nationality is guaranteed the following for free if they don’t have medical aid:

  1. Emergency services
  2. Primary health care services at government facilities. This means that clinics are free to all;
  3. Abortions at government facilities. Under South African law, anyone can terminate a pregnancy up until 12 weeks for whatever reasons and between 13 and 20 weeks if the pregnancy endangers the woman’s mental, physical or socioeconomic health;
  4. Plus, all pregnant and breastfeeding women and children under the age of six are eligible for free health care services at public clinics and hospitals.

A 2007 national health department directive also guarantees free HIV and TB care and treatment to anyone — again regardless of nationality or documentation status. This is an important measure in ensuring that South Africa makes every effort to curtail the spread of HIV and TB, not only within our borders but within the region.

Healthcare and fear in the time of an outbreak

But we know that many foreign migrants struggle to access the healthcare system — particularly those working in informal or irregular work or who struggle to maintain a regular (legal) documentation status, including asylum seekers.

South Africa is in a 21-day lockdown to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. For many in the country, including migrants, limited access to clean water and overcrowded living conditions will make basic steps to prevent infection such as frequent handwashing or social distancing difficult. Irregular work and the resultant lack of financial security may also pose a barrier when trying to adhere to the lockdown regulations.

But undocumented migrants face an additional hurdle: Many may be too scared to seek the care they need.

National and provincial health departments must ensure that existing legal frameworks upholding the right to access healthcare services for all are respected and that undocumented migrants are not left behind. Accountability mechanisms are needed at facilities, this includes ensuring that migrants have access to information in, and staff speaking, relevant languages.

Right now, healthcare workers are tracing the close contacts of confirmed Covid-19 cases to ensure they can get tested and take measures to avoid spreading the virus further. If some contacts hold an irregular status, they may be reluctant to identify themselves to health officials for fear of possible arrest, detention and deportation.

Blanket amnesties until the outbreak is over can change that. So can making sure that public health messaging around the virus and the disease it causes, Covid-19 are available in languages such as French, Shona, Lingala or Kiswahili. The Cape Town nonprofit Scalabrini Centre, which works with migrants and refugees, has already produced information on the virus and the lockdown in these languages. These should be disseminated widely.

Now that the lockdown has begun, civil society organisations trusted by migrant communities should be given the necessary permissions to reach out to these communities in partnership with health departments. The importance of including foreign migrants in our response to Covid-19 must be communicated to all South Africans — including government employees — to address common xenophobic sentiments that may undermine our approach.

And again accountability measures must be in place and all service providers must be reassured that they will not face any reprisal should they fail to report individuals with an irregular immigration status.

Blanket amnesty until the outbreak is over can protect all of us — even our neighbours

During the lockdown, the government has gazetted regulations instructing any foreigner currently in the country to stay where they are, including extending visas and permission to remain in the country legally. These regulations, however, are directed at individuals who are in South Africa on holiday or business, and from ‘high-risk’ countries, all of which are currently outside of SADC.

Nothing has, to date, been said about migrants currently in South Africa who are from the SADC region, or elsewhere on the continent. 

Until the outbreak is contained, we need immediate amnesty for all foreign migrants who are currently without the documents required to be in the country legally.

On Thursday, March 26, the Department of Home Affairs sent an email to NGOs indicating that Refugee Reception Offices where asylum seekers have to renew their permits monthly, quarterly or bi-annually will be closed during the lockdown period.

The department has said that asylum seekers whose asylum documentation expires between 16 March and 16 April “will not be penalised or arrested provided [they] legalise [their] visas within 30 days of the lockdown being lifted”. However, they must renew their permits within 30 days of the lockdown finishing. This does not provide for those whose documentation may have expired just prior to the 16 March, and who ordinarily would have had a month past that expiry date in order to renew, but now are prevented from doing so because of the lockdown.

Given that a November 2019 Auditor General report indicated that the Standing Committee for Refugee Affairs believed it would take the department of home affairs’ Refugee Appeals Board 68 years to process the current backlog of asylum applications, the DHA needs to urgently strategise about how it will deal with any additional backlog of applications to be processed.

An effective response to South Africa’s coronavirus outbreak is an inclusive response.

This keeps migrants safe and it keeps everyone in South Africa healthy. It reduces the need for people to cross the border through irregular routes that may not only be dangerous but do not have the healthcare workers needed to screen people for the new virus.

Effective management of this public health crisis will involve all of us. This would truly be a case of, what Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi recently called, “international solidarity.”

Jo Vearey is the director of the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), Wits University. Follow her on Twitter @jovearey. Sally Gandar is the head of advocacy and legal advisor at the Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town. Follow the centre on @ScalabriniCT.

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Subscribe to the newsletter.