There is a common misconception that ‘illegal’ immigrants choose not to be documented. In the eyes of many, their alleged defiance of the rules justifies that they should be deported. This misconception also spawns the widespread anti-immigrant sentiments.
In fact, the vast majority of immigrants in South Africa want to be documented – the Department of Home Affairs just makes it extremely difficult for them to do just that.
The assembled immigrants expressed their frustration that they are viewed as ‘illegal foreigners’ that ‘choose not to be abide by the laws’. As one protester put it: “I am an immigrant without documents – even though I have tried and tried to get documented. I am not a thief, I am not a criminal, and I am tired of being treated like one. ”
Another added “I am teacher, with 20 years of experience in Zimbabwe, and here, I am not allowed to work. There are thousands of schools in South Africa that don’t have enough teachers, and still, they don’t let us work. Why?”
It is no exaggeration to say that South Africa currently no policy in place that acknowledges the reality of migration in Southern Africa. The only people who are able to attain work permits are those holding PhDs or other advanced qualifications. Everyone else, from teachers to nurses to farm workers, are left out.
South Africa can gain a tremendous amount by giving these immigrants a chance to work legally, including much-needed skills transfers, productivity growth and increased economic output, to name just a few.
Instead of doing this, South Africa’s policies in the past and at present have given most migrants no other option but to be undocumented. Such a policy is short-sighted and unhelpful, because it only increases migrants’ dependence on state resources and deprives South Africa of the huge developmental potential that migration presents.
The bottom line is that migration is a reality that is here to stay. It can either be dealt with in a reactionary way or it can be strategically managed to maximize its development potential for both South Africa and its regional partners. The government no doubt needs to move from the former to the latter.
Immigration policies need to move from being exclusive and reactionary to being inclusive, progressive and, most importantly, acknowledge the realities on the ground. Only in this way will South Africa be able to reap the development potential of migration and live up to its regional responsibilities.
PASSOP aims to work hard to stimulate constructive debate around these issues and advocate for these changes in the coming months leading up to the ANC Conference in Mangaung in July.
Opinion piece written by PASSOP Programme Coordinator, David von Burgsdorff.