South Africa’s Tough Lessons on Migrant Policy

South Africa tried to be generous with its refugee policies. The outcome was not good. Here’s what Europe — and the U.S. — can learn.

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Europe is finally beginning to take concrete steps toward addressing the largest migrant and refugee crisis since the end of World War II. After a global outcry over the inadequate response, some governments are pledging increased support for migrants. This translated into an EU pledge to “relocate” 160,000 refugees over the next two years. By 2017, the United States will also increase the annual number of asylum visas its offers from 70,000 to 100,000. Expecting 800,000 people this year alone, Germany passed a policy package expanding state support for refugees and accelerating proceedings for asylum seekers.

Such steps are laudatory — but South Africa’s recent experience provides a cautionary example of how well-intended asylum policies can go seriously wrong. It illuminates the perverse consequences of accommodating one narrow category of migrants — those designated as political refugees — while attempting to keep out so-called economic migrants, those without well-founded fears of violence or persecution. While international agencies and state bureaucracies make clear legal distinctions between refugees and migrants, in practice a country’s political and economic problems are often intertwined, and motivations for migrating correspondingly multi-layered.

Moreover, treating migration as an immediate crisis leads to short-term policy responses that become unsustainable without popular support. In short, South Africa’s experience teaches us that generous asylum policies aren’t enough. Unless there are programs to incentivize aid and integration, local communities — especially those that feel poor or marginalized — will strike back.

Between 2006 and 2012, South Africa received the highest number of asylum seekers of any country in the world, peaking in 2009 with 222,300 claims (in comparison, the U.S. received 47,900 the same year). South Africa’s appeal is manifold: it offers relative political stability and prosperity in a region of fragile states mired in poverty and conflict. Moreover, South Africa boasts some of the most progressive asylum laws in the world. Instead of being forced into sprawling camps, once migrants apply for asylum, they can live and work anywhere in the country until the state determines whether or not they qualify as a refugee. For the most part, asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to the same public services as citizens. While few have gained citizenship, the law allows them to do so if returning “home” looks impossible.

Yet, aside from a limited number of visas for professionals, South Africa maintains strict limits on almost all other forms of immigration. So, if you are an unskilled economic migrant — or even a highly skilled one without the money and time to negotiate a complicated bureaucracy — it is nearly impossible to live legally in South Africa. The situation is radically different, though, if you hold an asylum seeker permit, which enables you to live almost as if you were a citizen while the state decides if you qualify as a refugee, which can take years. The asylum entryway has subsequently become clogged with hundreds of thousands of people for whom it was not intended, sidelining many of those who most desperately need protection. Moreover, the premium placed on refugee status and the resulting backlogs have bred corruption within and outside government offices, produced a market for fake documents, and delegitimized the asylum system.

Recent reports of an emerging market for stolen or fake Syrian passports, or migrants attempting to “pass” as Syrian to better their chances for asylum, suggest that these strategies are already emerging in Europe as well. One only needs to look at the latest numbers to realize that the EU’s pledge to accommodate 160,000 refugees will cover only a small percentage of the 500,000 that have arrived by sea in 2015 so far, or the estimated influx of 800,000 into Germany alone. As with any scarce resource, the extraordinary demand for limited asylum opportunities will inevitably create competition, corruption, and conflict. With most unable to secure documents, conditions are ripe for labor exploitation and underground economies that can undermine wages for both migrants and citizens.

South Africa’s effort to grapple with Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown in 2007-2008, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of people crossing the border, illustrates the hazardous combination of a liberal asylum system and highly restrictive immigration regime. Without any way to migrate legally, most of those finding their way south applied for asylum, overwhelming South Africa’s status determination system. Refugee Reception Offices were beyond overwhelmed. Yet, though they were leaving conditions of intense political persecution, South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs argued that most Zimbabweans entering South Africa were economic migrants and did not qualify as refugees. Many of those who had been persecuted or tortured had their claims rejected out of hand. The hundreds of thousands of others who had little choice but to leave Zimbabwe were branded “illegal foreigners” and subject to raids, detention, and deportation.

Only after South Africa declared a three-year moratorium on deportations to Zimbabwe and streamlined a temporary permit process — the Zimbabwe Dispensation Project — did asylum applications fall dramatically. Originally set to expire after four years, South Africa recently implemented a process to extend these special permits until 2017. This stop-gap has done wonders to alleviate the burden on the asylum system and provide short term security to 200,000 Zimbabweans. But what will happen once the permits expire?

Indeed, Europe and the United States may be tempted to “solve” the current migration crisis through short-term expansions of asylum visas and other humanitarian gestures. Such expressions of generosity at the national or supra-national level are an important start. But if local politicians and the public are not on board, resentment can manifest in victories for nativist parties in local elections, discrimination, and violence.

In South Africa, over 60 migrants were killed and thousands displaced in xenophobic violence in May 2008. Earlier this year, politicians and traditional leaders made insensitive and often incendiary comments about foreign nationals, sparking another wave of lootings, killings, and displacement. Given the rising popularity of anti-immigrant political parties throughout Europe, from Denmark to Greece, it’s not unlikely that we’ll see an increase of violence and other forms of discrimination against foreigners regardless of their legal status. Legal refugee status cannot ensure that migrants and refugees are economically and physically secure if they are surrounded by widespread xenophobia and institutional marginalization. While there is no magic bullet, providing incentives for local communities who embrace refugees and migrants can help quell tensions and secure political buy-in.

South Africa’s experience offers an example of what happens when states ignore the complex realities of migration by mixing progressive refugee policy with exclusionary immigration practices. Approaching the current influx of migrants into Europe exclusively through the lens of a “refugee crisis” has the potential to unleash similar unintended consequences. Once migrants enter the country, they will live and work among its citizens in towns, villages, and cities. Policy needs to go beyond granting legal status to providing financial and political incentives for local leaders to embrace non-nationals and their economic contributions. Destination countries should focus their efforts on crafting long-term strategies to address the lived realities of mixed migration rather than grasping for short-term solutions.

In the photo, displaced people who have fled anti-immigrant violence in Johannesburg, South Africa, eat on April 19, 2015 in a camp in Primrose.

Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

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