Picture: THE TIMES
Refugees. Picture: THE TIMES

THE African National Congress (ANC) has once again signalled that it wants to see the country’s immigration policy comprehensively reviewed, citing concerns over the abuse of the asylum-seeking system and competition for jobs between foreigners and local unemployed.

Since 1994 South Africa has adopted one of the most liberal immigration policies in the world. This, together with corruption, and poor border and immigration management, has meant that South Africa has the highest number of asylum seekers in the world and an unknown number of illegal immigrants.

But immigration policy has become ambiguous in recent years, with mixed signals coming from the department and ministry of home affairs over its future direction.

Government officials said this week that, in its national conference resolution on peace and stability adopted last week, the ANC stated that undocumented immigrants posed an economic and security threat. The party further believed that the inward flow of low-skilled labour needed to be balanced with the negative effect on employment.

The final wording of the party’s resolution has not yet been made available. Requests to the ANC for a copy of the resolution went unanswered on Wednesday.

Government officials and several conference delegates said the conference resolution recommended the introduction of a border management agency by the Department of Home Affairs to deal with immigration issues.

While the agency has been under discussion by the government for years now, its establishment has been held up — in part over uncertainty as to whether it should fall under the Department of Home Affairs or the Department of State Security.

The ANC resolution further recommends the establishment of asylum application centres, although precisely what these would entail is not spelt out.

The harder line on immigration was reinforced in the organisational report to the ANC conference last week.

ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe — articulating the view of the party’s outgoing national executive committee — urged in his report that the government find a better balance between the protection of refugee rights and domestic concerns.

"During the last five years there were developments that pointed to the need for a more comprehensive approach to the question of management of foreign nationals entering South Africa," Mr Mantashe’s report reads.

These included the high number of cases of crime involving foreign nationals and the number of undocumented foreign nationals who have jobs in the leisure, hospitality and agricultural sectors in the face of high unemployment among locals.

Further, competition from nationals from Asian countries was having a negative effect on small businesses. The firmer direction that the ANC provided to government could help reduce the ambiguity on immigration policy.

Earlier this month, the Department of Home Affairs revealed in court papers that it had asked the Department of Public Works to investigate and cost the construction refugee "camps" along the country’s borders.

The resulting report was quoted in the Sunday Times at the beginning of this month as being aimed at "addressing the shelter needs of refugees within the republic".

The Department of Public Works said it was "investigating the planning processes required". There are 52 possible sites being considered where such camps could be located.

The court papers were lodged in response to an application by a refugee rights group, Scalabrini, asking the Western Cape High Court to compel the Department of Home Affairs to continue to carry out services to refugees and asylum seekers following the closure of the Cape Town refugee reception office early this year.

However, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor denied earlier this month that this would mean the future "encampment" of refugees. The Department of Home Affairs told the court that its policy was to "establish refugee reception centres closer to the points of entry", but still to allow refugees to live among the South African population.

The department said it was in the process of building such a centre next to the Lebombo border with Mozambique, which would enable asylum seekers to access services upon entry into South Africa.

Braam Hanekom, director of Passop, a refugee rights group, said on Wednesday that he expected a "hard year ahead" for immigration rights. He had not yet seen the ANC policy conference resolution on peace and stability, which he said was "anxiously awaited".