Immigration Bill given thumbs down
The Immigration Amendment Bill, passed by Parliament this week, has been labelled inhumane, ill-conceived and draconian by lawyers and human rights activists, who say that asylum-seekers and refugees will be hard hit by it.
“The Bill favours the rich at the expense of the vulnerable,” said Fatima Khan, the director of the University of Cape Town’s refugee rights project. “The amendments are harsh and unnecessary.” Khan said the Bill allowed for asylum-seekers to be pre-screened at South Africa’s border, in spite of the fact that immigration officials were not qualified to do this. “They should be allowed into the country and properly screened,” she said.
Sheldon Magardie, the regional director of Lawyers for Human Rights, was angry that border officials would be empowered to deport people at the border “there and then”. “The effect will be that persons with valid asylum claims at the border risk being immediately deported to countries where they may be tortured or killed,” Magardie said. “This new procedure violates the spirit of South Africa’s international legal obligations under the Convention Against Torture and the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.”
Roni Amit, the senior researcher at the African Centre for Migration and Society, emphasised that the High Court ruled in 2006 that pre-screening was a violation of constitutional rights. “There is a perception that people are abusing the system,” said Amit. “But rather than addressing abuse in the home affairs department, they’re targeting people coming into the country.”
Critics also complain that the law empowers Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to reduce the number of days given to asylum-seekers to report to an immigration officer for asylum status from 14 to five.
“It’s cruel,” said Khan. “The minister has no idea how vulnerable asylum-seekers are, especially females. Women are sometimes raped by gangs and left lying at the border for days.
“What is she going to do with these people who take more than five days? Is she going to deport them? Is she going to imprison them?” Said Magardie: “You can’t have a one-size-fits-all approach. You can apply for asylum only at refugee reception offices in the main towns. Someone coming from the border will probably take more than five days to reach a big town.”
There are measures dealing with cases of abuse in the Refugee Act as it currently stands, she said. The increase in criminal penalties was a further problem in the new law, said Magardie. “The minister has increased penalties from fines to jail sentences of up to 15 years for infringements. That is disproportionate.”
A provision allowing for advanced passenger processing (APP), to give home affairs access to airlines’ passenger lists, appeared to violate privacy rights. Said Magardie: “Home affairs is a creaking bureaucracy which cannot cope with large-scale violations of the integrity of the population register and identity theft. How this new and additional database maintenance responsibility for APP will be handled is a mystery.”
Democratic Alliance home affairs spokesperson Annette Lovemore said the processing of the Bill was another concern, as the ANC used its majority muscle to force it through in the teeth of the unanimous rejection by opposition parties. “It was bulldozed through,” Lovemore said. “The department did not consult at the drafting stage and gave a one-week submission deadline for public submissions for a very complex Bill. There was no robust debate.”
Lovemore objected to the stipulation that foreigners wishing to establish businesses in South Africa must, within a year of being granted a visa, meet a certain unspecified “target”. “Exceptional skills permits have also been eradicated and replaced with critical skills permits, making it harder to work in South Africa. “The overall effect is that it’s going to make migration harder,” said Amit. “It contains language that makes it harder for people to apply for visas of any kind.”
Dlamini-Zuma told the media this week that immigration policy “has to be in line with our national priorities, of which job creation is one of the most important”. Abuses of South Africa’s open-immigration policy had compromised national security and tarnished the country’s international reputation, she said.