Business Day Live – Lorenzo Fioramonti, August 28 2015
THE Department of Home Affairs has never been particularly efficient. Recent events have confirmed that its traditional weaknesses have not been addressed, while showing that new problems have developed, particularly in relation to how foreigners and, above all, migrants are being treated.
With a view to resolving the impasse, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is now leading an interministerial committee, comprising Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba, his tourism counterpart, Derek Hanekom, and their colleagues from the security cluster. Their responsibility is to “examine and solve the potential and unintended consequences of the new immigration regulations on various sectors, including tourism and investment”.
Last year, the department announced new rules for foreign travellers and migrants. Besides expanding the list of countries whose citizens would require a visa to enter SA, it also established that all minors travelling with their parents in or out of SA would need to carry an unabridged birth certificate.
Restrictions and lengthier procedures were also introduced for migrants seeking work in SA. These were especially harsh for workers from other African countries, with the department opposing the issuing of business visas at the port of entry for traders travelling from East Africa.
Not only have the new visa regulations triggered animosity within the government, especially between Gigaba and Hanekom, but they have affected other African countries, as well as international tourism coming from SA’s alleged “best friends”, Brics (Brazil, Russia, India and China). Meanwhile corruption is rampant in many home affairs offices.
Evidence of bribery was reported in a study by the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University and Lawyers for Human Rights, which showed how asylum seekers and refugees are regularly asked to pay officials not only to process their applications, but even to enter the premises. It is evident that the department does not excel in planning, nor does it do a good job at conducting regulatory impact assessments. This is despite all the money spent on consultants and “experts”.
Had it conducted a formal assessment, it would have immediately realised that the new legislation was likely to backfire. Why? For starters, South African embassies around the world are ill-equipped to issue visas on a large scale.
Their network does not cover all countries and consulates are few and far between, which means travellers would need to embark on a long journey (possibly even outside their own country) just to apply for a tourist visa.
Moreover, unabridged birth certificates are generally provided in the home language of the issuing country. As home affairs officials at SA’s ports of entry are unlikely to be fluent in Mandarin, Russian, Hindi, German or any other non-Anglo-Saxon language, the certificates need to be translated by sworn translators, which makes the whole process more cumbersome and adds the risk of fraud.
Gigaba has repeatedly declared that these restrictions are key to stopping child trafficking. Yet, this seems to run counter to common sense, as a decent policy evaluation would have immediately found. Indeed, the criminal organisations involved in child trafficking are very well resourced. They can easily bribe officials or forge certificates to travel around the world, especially if one considers the rudimentary nature of birth certificates. Any graphic designer with basic abilities could forge one at home.
The safest document for travel internationally is a passport. It is relatively hard to counterfeit and has features that can be scanned and checked by machines. Many countries issue passports to minors that indicate the names and details of their parents too.
Foreigners travelling with these “safer” documents will be denied entry to SA unless they have poorly translated, easy-to-forge birth certificates.
In an attempt to streamline the visa process in the country, the department established a partnership with a private company, VFS Global, which is now tasked with processing applications in SA.
Not only has this made the process very expensive for applicants (each application costs more than R1,300), it has not necessarily ensured more efficiency. It took my family two years to receive permanent residence, with the youngest of my children (the only one of us born in SA) being denied a permit because his medical certificate was lost in the process.
When I first applied, before the new legislation came into effect, it took less than a year to process my residence permit, at virtually no cost.
VFS takes no responsibility for mistakes: it is nothing but a very expensive monopolistic middleman.
So, what to do? First, the department should start issuing modern passports to all South Africans, including full details of parents for minors, thus making the need to carry a birth certificate obsolete.
Moreover, it should strengthen capacity and professionalism at all its offices. It makes no sense to direct money to a private company when the offices that ultimately process applications operate under duress. Applicants should be paying their fees directly to home affairs offices on condition that revenues are reinvested in the upgrade of facilities and in bonuses for employees, thus rewarding best practice.
Applications should be traceable via the internet and home affairs offices should be equipped with CCTV cameras streaming online, so that processes can be monitored by anyone and applicants can choose the best time to apply to avoid queues.
The resources so generated should also be used to subsidise free assistance for asylum seekers and refugees, thus eliminating the double standard of first-class applicants turning to fancy VFS offices and poor migrants having to pay bribes at local home affairs offices.
Above all, the department should recognise that migration is not only a fact of life, but a great resource for a diverse and dynamic economy (millions of rand are generated every day by their work, with billions in social security benefits often unclaimed). Migration becomes a security threat only when it is mismanaged and when migrants have to suffer abuse, which makes them easy prey for criminal organisations.
We need a totally different approach before the shortsighted South African “fortress” caves in, under the pressure of unregulated regional migration. Rather than disputing data and chastising critics, the department should start listening. And it should publicly apologise to foreigners for the way have been treated so far.