South Africa Proposes Sweeping Immigration Policy Changes

South Africa, long a haven for migrants from across Africa, is trying to update its immigration policy with a number of changes, which one official says aims to strike a balance between being welcoming of immigrants and keeping the nation safe.

Among the policy changes being considered: the creation of processing centers for asylum-seekers along South Africa’s border; the end of an automatic path from long-term residency to citizenship; the introduction of a points-based system intended to attract highly skilled immigrants and the elimination of some visa requirements for African citizens.  

The proposed changes come amid tensions over xenophobic attacks on African immigrants, with the view that it is “neither desirable nor possible to stop international migration.”

Delicate balance

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba said the proposal, which will go before parliament next week, aims to strike a delicate balance between welcoming millions of migrants from African countries and keeping the nation safe.

The new policy comes amid a wave of violence in recent weeks against African immigrants, whom violent protesters accuse of taking jobs and scarce resources away from South Africans.

“South Africa is committed to freeing movement in a managed way,” Gigaba told journalists on the sidelines of a conference on international migration in Johannesburg. “And we will be looking at what is happening in West Africa, to draw lessons from how West Africa is dealing with this process and, and to the extent possible, to begin implementing some of those measures.

“Because, most certainly, the South African international migration policy must be Afrocentric,” he said.

Last year, the Department of Home Affairs said 16 million people arrived in South Africa. Most came from neighboring countries, such as Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Botswana. The government also documented the arrival of more than 400,000 Americans and more than 560,000 British nationals.

That same year, immigration officials deported more than 23,000 people, most of them from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi.

Tony Elumelu, director of the Commission on Free Movement of Persons for the Economic Community of West African States, said South Africa’s proposed policy works well with the transitory nature of intra-African migration.

“We are a highly mobile people, but we do not stay,” Elumelu told VOA. “So if we do not stay permanently, what you do is allow us to go and come back.”

Critics of proposal

Human rights activists have expressed concern over the proposal.

Jacob van Garderen, national director of Lawyers for Human Rights, said the proposals on asylum-seekers are worrying.

“We are concerned that some of the laudable mission statements in the white paper are not translated into reality through the sections that follow,” van Garderen said. “We are very concerned about additional restrictions that are being introduced or proposed for asylum-seekers, the creation of additional detention centers in the various provinces, the removal of the right to work and study for asylum-seekers.

“There also seems to be a further push for the criminalization of immigration offenses, which is deeply unfortunate,” he added.

Minister Gigaba will deliver the paper to South Africa’s Cabinet next week. He says he’s optimistic that it will pass, and that the changes will take effect by 2018.

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