The South African government, led by the Department of Home Affairs, has pushed hard for immigration reform over the last few years, approving a new white paper on international migration in March. Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize indicated that the proposed white paper replaced the 1999 version which “did not address globalisation, migration, and priorities set out in the National Development Plan, Vision 2030.”
The government’s controversial Border Management Authority Bill passed on its third attempt in early June after opposition parties had blocked previous attempts by exiting parliament, preventing the ANC from forming the required quorum. The bill seeks to establish one centralised authority to handle all matters involving South Africa’s ports of entry. DA MP Haniff Hoosen labelled it “one of the worst pieces of legislation that has come before the House.” He described it as “an attempt to create another entity that could be captured by greedy politicians”. Pravin Gordhan also raised concerns regarding the cost of creating such a body, with projections ranging anywhere from R3bn to R22bn.
The government has claimed that these measures are in response to data indicating a lack of South African border security, and legal loopholes allowing economic migrants to pose as asylum seekers for easier entry. In parliament, ANC MP Nokhaya Mnisi stated that not everyone coming through South Africa’s border had honourable intentions and that 95% of those claiming asylum in South Africa were not genuine asylum seekers. Considering this strong claim we need to ask ourselves if this is indeed the case. Does South Africa truly have as many asylum seekers as the government has claimed, and was the existing law strong enough to deny asylum seekers?
In legal terms, a refugee is defined as an individual who has fled their “place of habitual residence” due to a well-founded fear of persecution along the lines of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or other groupings which may place them in an oppressed minority category. They can also be classified as such if their own country has been attacked or is occupied by a foreign power. When an asylum seeker is legally accepted into a host country they are reclassified as a refugee. Economic immigrants (or just immigrants for short) are entirely different. There are moving to a new country because of perceived financial or lifestyle opportunities – not out of fear for their lives or health.
While Nokhaya Mnisi did not state exactly where she got her figures from, it is generally understood that both the Department of Home Affairs and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have used spotty data on this subject. As it turns out, she was using this data when she made the statement in parliament. According to a detailed article on the subject, in Africacheck.org, the data is fundamentally flawed.
While government supports data which would indicate South Africa has the most asylum applicants in the world (1,096,063 according to the report) it seems this is actually due to incredibly slow processing speed and an enormous resultant backlog. In the words of the Southern African Litigation Centre’s (SALC) Executive Director Ramjathan-Keogh, it is the result of “slow and ineffective asylum processing which keeps people in asylum limbo for many years; instead of processing them so that applicants are either granted or refused asylum”. The government reports that of the 62,159 asylum applications lodged in 2015 only 2,499 were approved for refugee status – which is where ANC MP Nokhaya Mnisi’s 5% comes from.
Mnisi went on to state that, “South Africa must be able to refuse asylum to asylum seekers who traversed safe countries.” The data clearly bares out that in 2015, long before the recent passage of the Border Management Authority Bill, South Africa had no trouble denying refugee status under the existing legal framework.
For the last few years the government has made and proposed several critical changes to the country’s immigration policies, which is why it’s more important than ever to seek professional legal council from an immigration attorney when seeking to enter or leave the country. With a new Border Management Authority in the works it’s critical for specialists in the immigration industry to keep up with the current and impending changes.