A migrant child waits in line at a Department of Home Affairs office.  Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
A migrant child waits in line at a Department of Home Affairs office. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

A tide of protectionism and fears that foreigners will rob citizens of economic opportunities and threaten their safety is sweeping across the world. While US President Donald Trump’s executive order to ban refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim countries has been met with horror and fury in his own country, the fact is he was elected on exactly this ticket: to shut airport gates and build walls.

The reality is that people will inevitably move; whether from persecution or death in the event of conflict or from economic necessity to provide for themselves and their families. And as movement of people becomes easier and the prompts for it more compelling, tensions in countries that receive refugees and immigrants will be rising.

Countries such as the US and Germany – where there is wealth, prosperity and opportunity – will always be top of the list. And so will SA – as an island of prosperity in a poor continent also wracked by political conflict, it will always be a destination of choice for African and even a growing number of Asian migrants as far afield as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

 History is full of examples of economies built by immigrants. They work hard because they are faced with no choice but to make it on their own. They also tend to be the best — the most enterprising and determined — among the members of the societies they leave behind. In a scarce skills environment such as SA, skilled immigrants can contribute immensely to development and progress.

But SA’s migration policy has been a mess up to this point. Immigration of skilled people is inordinately difficult and despite government claims that scarce skills are welcome, in practice this has seldom been true. A bigger problem lies at the other end of the spectrum, where millions of unskilled people from the region are drawn to SA, mostly in search of economic opportunity.

A badly administered and widely abused policy on refugees has enabled hundreds of thousands of people without a legitimate claim to stay in the system for years, establishing themselves in jobs and setting up microbusinesses.

Throw into the picture two other important social and political factors particular to SA: the economic collapse of Zimbabwe in 2008, which overwhelmed the system as economic migrants flooded into SA; and the poorly skilled and badly educated local workforce, which has been outcompeted by foreigners who now occupy a substantial number of lowly paid jobs in the service of other foreigners.

This is an unusual outcome: in most economies local citizens outcompete migrants in the labour market by virtue of their more extensive local networks.

But in SA, foreigners – especially East Africans – have outcompeted locals in the informal sector, as the proliferation of Somali and Bangladeshi township spazas and sociological research shows. The result has been sporadic violence against foreigners and looting of businesses.

Dynamics such as these make finding a workable migration policy that prioritises citizens and yet is pragmatic and humanitarian in outlook a difficult task.

The South African government is also showing signs — indicated in the green paper published last year — that it wants to tighten up the borders and block undocumented migrants at the point of entry.

On Tuesday, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba justifiably urged the hospitality industry to prioritise South African citizens when looking for new workers.

But the elephant in the room is what to do about economic migrants from the region, who will continue to come into SA anyway. Special dispensations for Zimbabwe and Lesotho are coming to an end. Closing the borders is hardly an option. A new initiative is urgently needed.

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