Home Affairs is hiding its head in the sand on illegal immigration

Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: Christopher Moagi
Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: Christopher Moagi

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result.

Nevertheless, for the past 14 months, I have banged at the door of the department of home affairs, calling to the deaf ears of three different ministers, in the hope of implementing a sensitive immigration management plan for addressing the challenges faced by both the City and the undocumented immigrants who wish to call Johannesburg home.

From the outset, let me say that I condemn xenophobia in all its manifestations, and I will ensure that those who intend perpetuating violence against immigrants face the full might of the law.

At the same time, I am committed to ensuring that the rule of law is upheld, and that no criminal, whether from South Africa or any other country, feels safe on our streets. I am committed to ensuring that Johannesburg becomes a safer place for all who live, work, and play in it.

I welcome foreign nationals into our city and country. All I have asked is that those who visit, do so lawfully, and while they are here, they respect our laws. I would love every citizen of the world to visit our city and invest in growing our economy and creating jobs for our people.

Foreign nationals buy goods in our country, establish businesses, and stimulate economic growth. They can also contribute their skills and experience in sectors of our economy where it is desperately needed. This is key to my vision of creating a more prosperous and inclusive city.

However, this does not mean we can hide our heads in the sand and pretend that the challenge of illegal immigration in Johannesburg has not reached crisis level.

Illegal immigration compounds serious challenges in the provision of basic services.

As a City, we are expected to proactively plan and budget for the provision of basic services to all our residents. We are also expected to proactively budget and plan for the provision of emergency accommodation, should residents be rendered homeless as a result of evictions or natural disasters.

How are we, as government, supposed to effectively and accurately plan and budget, when we do not know who is even in our city?

Despite illegal immigration’s real impact on our city, the issue cannot be dealt with at municipal level comprehensively, instead it requires the willing participation of the national government.

Ultimately, home affairs bears the sole mandate of managing immigration into South Africa and ensuring that entrants into the country enter with the correct documentation.

The department’s failure to adequately perform their most basic function attests to their absolute ignorance as to the magnitude of the social repercussions of not decisively managing incoming foreign migrants seeking asylum.

In a Supreme Court of Appeal judgment, Scalabrini Centre, Cape Town v The Minister of Home Affairs, the court stated that according to the department’s own records from 2015, there was a backlog of some 100 000 files which had not yet been decided by a refugee status determination officer and a backlog of more than 100 000 cases which had not been decided by the Refugee Appeal Board.

These are not just mere numbers. These are real people; some of whom are in real need and deserving of the department’s attention.

The department claims the matter is being “addressed”, though it is silent on any progress made with these backlogs or whether they have increased since 2015.

As the Supreme Court noted, viewed in this light, the department’s claim of dealing with challenges surrounding immigration seems questionable.

In the City, we have cause to question the claim as well.

There are still over 120 allegedly undocumented immigrants housed at the Wembley Stadium, in line with the City’s obligation to provide temporary emergency accommodation following a fire at the Cape York building in the inner city on July 5.

Now almost four months later, the department of home affairs has still not determined the status of these persons.

To date, as part of its visible policing, the City has conducted 11 raids within the inner city, in conjunction with the department of home affairs. During this process, 267 allegedly undocumented immigrants were arrested. Despite being aware of the crisis, the department has failed to develop a proactive plan for addressing this challenge.

Furthermore, allegations of corruption and bribery in the provision of papers is aggravating this crisis. I am sure that there are tens of thousands of additional foreign migrants who do not even bother applying, given the apparent collapse of the system.

For those who are undocumented immigrants, their status condemns them into a constant state of insecurity, living on the fringes of our society.

Often, these people live in spaces where they can hide; but this means that they enjoy no access to services or protections which they may sorely need.

More broadly, this means that South African cities and towns do not just have undocumented communities living within their borders, they have vulnerable people who are at extreme risk of exploitation – being charged exorbitant rentals for occupying a “landlord’s” property, economically driven to engage in criminal activities, or being trafficked by unscrupulous opportunists.

I have now instructed the City’s legal team to investigate all legal options available to the City to compel the department of home affairs to address the issue of illegal immigration in the City of Johannesburg.

Due to the importance of this case, the City of Joburg will be engaging the services of top experts, led by Advocate Dali Mpofu and Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi.

I also welcome the recent support shown by the Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula and the African Diaspora Forum on addressing the matter.

Indeed, the African Diaspora Forum has committed to join the City in legal proceedings against the department.

Let me make one other thing clear – I am not calling for undocumented immigrants to be immediately deported.

I am calling for the department of home affairs to perform its constitutional duty and ensure that all those who qualify for asylum or other permits are processed and provided with their papers timeously. Should individuals not qualify, or should they have committed crimes within our borders, then they should be sent home.

It is no longer possible to tolerate their indecisiveness and inertia, because the casualties of their inaction will be the most vulnerable of these immigrants and law abiding residents.

Herman Mashaba is the executive mayor of the City of Johannesburg.

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