Counting the Cost of Implementing South Africa’s Migration Policy

immigration rights trading policing
Wednesday, 14 December, 2011 - 09:03

South Africa cannot benefit from investing millions of rands into policing migration. It should invest in creating conditions that promote entrepreneurship, one of the survival strategies people; including migrants, rely on in order to sustain their livelihoods

On 30 November 2011 Isaac* woke up in his rented room in Kwanokuthula and prepared for his day. He washed, dressed and collected together his crafting tools and materials for making wire ornaments. He put them in his bag and caught the minibus taxi to the crafters’ stall in the tourist town of Plettenberg Bay on the south eastern coast of South Africa. His business had picked up slightly since the winter lull and he had brought along additional stock in anticipation of the holiday crowds. When he climbed out of the taxi a South African Police Service (SAPS) officer asked for his papers. Isaac’s stomach turned. He had come to Plettenberg Bay from Harare in January, but had not left the country when his papers expired. On that day his luck ran out.

Isaac was detained in the Plettenberg Bay police station for a few days before being taken on the long and uncomfortable journey to Home Affairs’ Lindela repatriation centre just north of Johannesburg. While still in police custody he managed to contact some of his friends to see if they could facilitate his release. His friends were subtly informed that the guarding officer’s church was in dire need of a keyboard, a ‘tithe’ which might just secure Isaac’s release. This unholy appeal failed and Isaac is sure to spend the next few weeks or months at Lindela before being deported to Zimbabwe. While there he will see family for a few days and then turn around for the long and risky trip back to Plettenberg Bay to revive his business. By then the holiday season will have passed, autumn will be imminent and the crafting trade will have started slacking off.

There is nothing unusual about Isaac’s story. The determination, loss and senseless disruptions are part of the collective narrative of at least 55 000 migrants who are deported from South Africa each year. Not all are Zimbabwean, but the vast majority are from neighbouring countries whose economies are overshadowed by South Africa’s prosperity. Their determination is almost matched by SA’s commitment to deportations. In November 2010 the Department of Home Affairs reported 55 825 deportations, a number that still falls short of the 2007 high of over 300 000 deportations. The drop is due to the government’s short-lived decision not to deport Zimbabwean immigrants but the numbers are on the rise again.

It would seem, at a glance, as though the implementation of immigration control policies come at an enormous cost, not only to the state and those who are subject to detention and deportation, but also to the regional economy and the national economy of South Africa. In 2009, the Forced Migration Studies Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand (now the African Centre for Migration & Society) undertook an analysis of the costs of policing immigration on the SAPS in the Gauteng Province. Their finding was that it cost the Gauteng SAPS Province some R362.5 million annually to detect, detain and transfer migrants to Lindela Holding Facility. We also know that immigration control cost the Department of Home Affairs R1.8 billion in 2009/10 (a figure that admittedly includes more than merely the deportation of foreign migrants). While some may think that this is money well spent, a closer look at the consequences reveals otherwise.

The Forced Migration Studies Programme research demonstrated that the consequence of policing immigration undermines the ability of the police to tackle serious violent and organised crime in at least three ways. Firstly, foreign migrants are deterred from reporting crime or assisting police with investigations as they fear harassment or extortion. Consequently, there are many thousands of people who do not feel that they can work with the police to tackle serious crime. Secondly, it diverts resources away from the policing of serious and violent criminals. The police often complain of not having enough resources to respond to robberies and assist victims of rape. We now know that over R300 million is being used simply against people whose only crime is not having the correct papers for being in the country. Thirdly, various research has found that, “Corruption is a common feature of immigration policing”, with one in six detainees at Lindela reportedly having secured their release through the payment of a bribe. This contributes towards a culture of corruption in the SAPS which undermines the entire ethos of professionalism and engenders a sense among many police officials that it is ‘normal’ to request money for police favours or in order not to exercise police powers.

So we know that enforcing immigration policy comes at a high cost to the police and the Department of Home Affairs, but it is worth using Isaac’s experience to begin to assess the other, hidden costs:

  • For at least three months Isaac is likely to lose his income, and the small amount he was able to remit to his family in Zimbabwe will also be lost;
  • His family will be less likely to buy South African made consumer goods or goods sold by South African chains in Zimbabwe;
  • The person from whom Isaac was renting a room in Kwanokuthula will lose their rental income until they are able to find another tenant;
  • The spaza shop where Isaac purchased his groceries will have lost a customer;
  • The cellphone company from which Isaac purchased airtime will have lost a customer;
  • Isaac will have lost his stock;
  • The government will have lost the VAT paid on all Isaac’s purchases.

Policing immigration is a zero sum game. While there is no substantive evidence that immigrants commit more crime than locals, police time spent chasing non-citizens mean they are not investigating housebreakings, murders, or other crimes with direct costs to South African society.

Moreover, there is little evidence from South Africa or elsewhere in the world that deportations reduce the overall numbers of foreign nationals. If we add these losses to the expenditure by the state, and include a human suffering cost that detention and deportation necessarily exacts, one has to wonder whether any indiscernible benefits of the policy are worth the effort and who (other than corrupt police officials and the companies subcontracted to detain and transfer migrants) gains from this practice. It is unclear what SA’s immigration policy and detention practices are seeking to achieve. As Parliament continues to reconsider the content of the country’s immigration policies, it needs to pragmatically consider the full economic and social costs to our country and our neighbours.

*not his real name    

- Chandre Gould and Loren Landau, Chandre Gould is a senior researcher in the Crime and Justice Programme at Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Loren Landau is the Director and Associate Professor, African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand. This article was first published on the ISS website.

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