The writer says a regional labour migration system needs political will and not an overly bureaucratic system. No migrants want to live in centres for the displaced like this one in Mayfair in 2015. Picture: Kevin Sutherland

Let's recognise migrants not as a threat but players in the economy, writes Zaheera Jinnah

Friday is the last day for the submission of comments to the Department of Home Affairs on their Green Paper on International Migration. Its publication in June was important because it began a new round of reflection and consultation about South Africa’s migration laws and practices.

After receiving submissions, the department will draft a White Paper which will be tabled in Parliament and considered by the portfolio committee, when the public will once again be able to make submissions to the committee.

In the past 150 years, the exploitation of labour migrants from neighbouring countries was enforced and entrenched through racist immigration policies. The process of considering immigration policy provides us with the opportunity to ensure a new policy is compliant with our constitution and reflects a commitment to mechanisms for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.

There are two key issues in the Green Paper that need attention: the place of regional labour migrants and our international, regional and national commitments to asylum seekers and refugees.

It is useful that the Green Paper recognises a lack of coherent policy to deal with regional workers. We know there are 2.17 million migrants in the country, 1.3 million of whom arrived between 2001 and 2011. Of the overall total, 75 percent are from SADC (Southern African Development Community) countries but as the Green Paper recognises, there is no policy to facilitate the entry and stay of the majority.

We know this kind of vacuum can lead to a rise in undocumented migration, poor labour conditions and social tensions. Yet if the Green Paper includes remedies, the overall tone of it also reflects a narrow, securitised approach that criminalises and stigmatises regional migrants.

This is unfounded. Research from Wits, Statistics South Africa and elsewhere shows low-skilled migrants are not a burden on the country’s services, labour markets or infrastructure. Instead, emerging evidence has shown a country needs a mixed-migration regime to harness the developmental potential of migration.

We know that in South Africa, low-skilled migrants are making important contributions to sectors such as crafts, hospitality, cross-border trade, but they are doing so alongside, not in place of, the locals.

The Green Paper proposes the introduction of an incremental visa system for SADC nationals which will enable legal and documented migration of workers, traders and small business owners. This is a proposal that will replicate some of the best practices elsewhere on our continent and will go a long way to meeting the AU’s goals of greater regional integration. Implementation of the SADC permit proposal would become the first step in supporting legal and managed systems of entry for SADC nationals.

Such systems would ensure migrants stay safe when they cross borders and make a full contribution to the South African economy, without being restrained by documentation issues or exploited by employers.

But there are limitations to the department's proposals that should be addressed in the forthcoming White Paper.

To succeed, a regional labour migration system needs strong political will, inter-departmental co-ordination and a processing system that is not overly bureaucratic. The permit system should not distinguish between traders, workers and business owners nor between formal and informal sectors.

This should not be recommended because such a system is likely to create administrative categories people do not easily fit into and that do not engage with the reality of the livelihood strategies of migrants which are multiple and informal.

The second key issue is the proposal to reshape the asylum system by removing the right to work of this group and restricting their freedom of movement. The department argues this is necessary given our overburdened asylum system which is largely dysfunctional; for instance, it is not uncommon to find that asylum seekers wait 17 years for their refugee status to be determined.

By allowing low-skilled regional migrants to enter legally via the SADC permit, the asylum system will automatically be unburdened.

South Africa’s existing asylum system has been cited as a role model in this decade when refugees across the world have been needlessly criminalised, detained and even killed. The right of asylum seekers and refugees to work, study and trade allows them to be self-sufficient.

In a country with high unemployment and poverty rates, it does not seem prudent to channel additional money to establish and run processing centres at the borders which will be a replication of services that are already available in cities and towns.

In recent years, the department successfully overhauled its civic services which serve 52 million people. With the right policy, budget and administrative system, it can achieve similar results in immigration and asylum services, but this will also require sharp, decisive political leadership that recognises migrants not as a threat but participants in a regional economy.

* Dr Zaheera Jinnah is a researcher at Wits University’s African Centre for Migration and Society