Aaron Motsoaledi: The migration issue needs all hands on deck, not point-scoring

2019-08-14 01:01

The already fragile emotions of South Africans were stretched to the limit by events that took place in central Johannesburg last week on Thursday, when foreigners allegedly attacked police officers.

The following day, police raided a suspected hijacked building in Braamfontein.

This week, as police stepped up their raids in Johannesburg’s CBD, at least 600 people were taken into custody to verify whether they were there legally.

An attack on law enforcement officers by any individual is completely unacceptable and needs to be condemned by all and sundry, no ifs or buts about it – it does not matter whether you are a citizen, a refugee, a permanent resident or an undocumented migrant.

During the emotive debate that followed this debacle, fingers were pointed at the department of home affairs, (perhaps justifiably so), but I feel that a lot of things were conflated.

As a starting point, I wish to accept upfront that our country truly suffers from the problem of porous borders, which leads to all sorts of undesirable ills – social ills, economic ills and, indeed, political ills.

Unwanted elements can pour into the country through these borders, but so can counterfeit goods, stolen property and drugs, not to mention the trafficking of women and children.

Police conducted raids in Johannesburg’s CBD this week. Weapons as well as counterfeit goods worth millions of rands were seized, and several hundred people were taken into custody to verify whether they were in South Africa legally. Picture: Sandile Ndlovu

Having said this, it does not mean that this beautiful country must not allow people from other nations to come to South Africa.

That will be politically, socially, morally and economically unacceptable because no nation is an island.

The most important issue is that people who cross borders have to be documented and be known to be around.

They then have to be governed under certain laws and regulations developed internationally and locally.

It would then be important for all of us to sing from the same hymn book when we debate the emotive issue of migration, especially after the events in central Johannesburg over the past two weeks.

I have heard people put asylum seekers, refugees, undocumented migrants, cross-border crime syndicates, corrupt individuals and illegal traders into the same group.

Contrary to popular belief, South Africa does not have a problem regarding refugees. The real challenge is undocumented migrants.

Over the past 21 years, the country has seen 1 001 162 asylum seekers apply for refugee status. Of this number, only 119 883 qualified as refugees.

The acceptance rate of only 11% is because the definition of refugee is unambiguous.

But an overwhelming number of people arriving at the five refugee reception centres in South Africa present themselves as asylum seekers when they are, in essence, economic migrants looking for economic opportunities.

People present themselves under the wrong pretext and supply false information, which is often fraudulent, and the overwhelming majority fail to meet the requirements needed to receive refugee status.

It would then be important for all of us to sing from the same hymn book when we debate the emotive issue of migration, especially after the events in central Johannesburg over the past two weeks.

There is also a very strong perception that the department of home affairs targets only undocumented migrants of African origin.

The fact that this perception is widespread does not necessarily make it true. Facts and numbers do not support this perception.

The department has also been accused of doing too little to deal with the influx of economic migrants. This is plainly not true.

What is true is that, yes, the department has not yet dealt with the problem of porous borders, but it does deal with the influx every day.

Over the past five years, close to R1 billion has been spent on deporting undocumented migrants from the Lindela Repatriation Centre in Krugersdorp.

This amount excludes the deportations that are done daily by the department’s 800 inspectors when they encounter somebody who has just entered the country and is still close to the border.

In these five years, about 2 500 buses were hired to return undocumented migrants to their home countries.

The problem is that, no matter how hard the inspectors work on deportation, the deportees often return immediately – some even manage to come back the very same day.

Since 2013, the country has been working on passing a law to establish a border management authority.

This has been identified as the only plausible solution to dealing with our porous borders. It is unfortunate and unhelpful that the Border Management Authority Bill has not yet been processed by the national council of provinces.

The present situation of having seven different departments/authorities at borders does not help deal with the porosity at the 72 legal boarder posts.

The rest of the borderlines – more than 4 000km of land and more than 3 000km of sea – remain largely unmanaged.

While we are still battling to pass the bill, it does not mean that ordinary laws, which are to be implemented by all three spheres of government, are suspended.

Municipal and metro bylaws, as well as applicable business and tax laws, still need to be applied.

There is no substitute for that. Even once the bill is passed into law, it will not be a substitute for the effective application of municipal and metro bylaws, and the other laws of the country.

How can an undocumented migrant be allowed to operate an unregistered business and also be allowed to disobey municipal bylaws, but not pay tax like all hardworking citizens in the country?

These questions need to be answered by all spheres of government. Without a concerted effort to improve governance, this problem will never go away.

It is for this reason that I wish to appeal to the mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, to stop politicking and rather work with everybody else to resolve the issues.

It doesn’t help to publicly claim that ministers of the department of home affairs do not want to meet local government when the two previous ministers – Malusi Gigaba and Siyabonga Cwele – met with the mayor on January 17.

If we adopt a practice of political point-scoring, we will not be able to resolve this problem that is bedeviling our nation.

  • Motsoaledi is the minister of the department of home affairs
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November 10 2019