Opinionista David Holdcroft 18 November 2015

Refugees and asylum-seekers add value to South African society

Corruption not only has allowed people to enter and stay in the country illegally, it has created the unfortunate situation whereby those who genuinely need South Africa’s help. The genuine refugees and asylum seekers who, normally do not have the resources to compete, are moved to the back of the queue, or may be deported and got rid of altogether.

Veronique is a Congolese woman who works as a cleaner in a Johannesburg office. She has been doing so for the past 12 years, during which time she has brought up three children of her own, as well as more recently adopting two children whose parents died of AIDS. Some of these children are still at school, some are now at university. Her own children have struggled to get entrance into university, partly because they cannot afford it, and do not qualify for state support. This is because they are the children of an asylum seeker. Veronique fled to South Africa some 22 years ago to seek refuge from an ever more violent war being waged in her country, and which shows no signs of abating. Some years ago her case file was lost – she does not know whether it was because at the time she refused to pay for her case officer to “find” the file, or whether it was a genuine mistake or sign of administrative incompetence. Now, periodically, she has to renew her asylum permit with its resolution – the determination of her refugee claim – nowhere in sight.

Perhaps it was the Veroniques of South Africa whom the Minister of National Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, had in mind when reporting on the findings of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Migration, of which he is chair. He clearly attributed recent outbreaks of xenophobia to their presence in the country as well as a variety of social ills such as unemployment, while at the same time exonerating the host population from all responsibility, proclaiming them to be “not xenophobic”.

While such proclamation may make us all rest easy, clearly the Minister felt the need to warn us that there are between five and six million foreign nationals in South Africa, both documented and undocumented, representing about 10% of the total population. The implication is that such high numbers are helping us along the path to our destruction. Elsewhere the crime statistics now have a dedicated column of crimes attributed to foreigners. More helpfully, however, the Committee further raised concerns around corruption that had crept into the Department of Home Affairs, but made assurances that the department was working hard to deal with this issue, which it undoubtedly is.

It is a common political ploy to pass responsibility for government’s own shortcomings, as well as deflecting all of societal ills onto those to whom the government is least accountable, in other words those who are most vulnerable and cannot answer back. Make people feel scared of the enemy within our midst, but be reassured that the government, in “reviewing migration policy”, is ready to act in order to make us all feel that they are truly on the job.

It would have been far more honest to say that, yes many migrants do have jobs. They also employ others, mostly South Africans; they pay taxes, rents, student fees, and often bring necessary skills to the economy, an economy which saw a huge haemorrhage of skilled labour throughout the last decade. And that the principal cause of the immense number of undocumented foreigners in the country is, simply, the systemic corruption that had crept into the Department of Home Affairs, and some law enforcement that enabled people to enter illegally then extend their stay indefinitely.

But corruption has not only allowed people to enter and stay in the country illegally; it has created the unfortunate situation whereby those who genuinely need South Africa’s help – the genuine refugees and asylum seekers like Veronique, normally do not have the resources to compete – and they go to the back of the queue. Or they may simply be deported, and gotten rid of altogether.

It is indeed laudable that the Inter-Ministerial Committee recognises corruption to be the serious issue that it is. It is a pity though that government has waited this long, after years of NGO reporting of such abuses, until it commissioned its own research after the xenophobic attacks of earlier this year. But better late than never. And perhaps it can learn that within the community there does exist the expertise and knowledge which would help it address such issues, before they get out of hand as clearly this has. And it is a further pity that the government refuses to recognise the immense contribution, seen and unseen, that people like Veronique make to the economy, to jobs, and to the social and cultural life of South Africa. Just ask her adopted children. Indeed the government, with a little more vision, could make this mess into a win-win.

According to MiWORC research, international migrants are far more likely to run their own businesses. Eleven percent are “employers” and 21% are classed as “self-employed”. By comparison, only 5% of non-migrants, and domestic migrants were employers and only 9% of non-migrants and 7% of domestic migrants were self-employed.

A study conducted by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory – a collaborative project between Wits University, the University of Johannesburg and the provincial government – “found that less than two out of 10 people who owned a business in the informal sector [in Johannesburg] were cross-border migrants.” The evidence further indicates that cross-border migrants actually benefit the local economy: “The evidence shows that they contribute to South Africa and South Africans by providing jobs, paying rent, paying VAT and providing affordable and convenient goods.”

Africa Check quoted The Observatory’s study as finding that “31% of the 618 international migrant traders interviewed rented properties from South Africans. Collectively they also employed 1,223 people, of which 503 were South Africans.” Research now from Uganda, Denmark, the United States and others tells a similar story.

South Africa, as a country with a relatively stable economy, constitution and legal system that respects and upholds basic human rights, has within its borders an opportunity to use the capacities of documented migrants to help develop the economy, create jobs and further develop a rich polity for the good of all. Instead of much needed policy development, the government seems concerned above all with its own electoral survival. In reassuring its population that we are not xenophobic we are implicitly setting up the very conditions, not only where xenophobia will become an acceptable part of daily life, but where all South Africans will be further impoverished economically socially and culturally. We need a rigorous but compassionate immigration policy and capacity that seeks to build South Africa. DM


In other news...

July 18 marks Nelson Mandela day. All over the country, South African citizens devote 67 minutes to charitable causes in memory of Madiba. It's a great initiative and one of those few occasions in South Africa where we come together as a nation in pursuit of a common cause. An annual 67 minutes isn't going to cut it though.

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