South Africa has a long-standing history of migration flow, including the Bantu-speaking settlers in pre-colonial times, then the immigrants from Europe, India and China during colonial times and influx of people from other African countries in the post-apartheid period. This migration history has been attributed to several reasons such as cheap labour, economic position, political stability as well as the famous post-apartheid slogan of rebuilding the nation. The nation’s migration management subscribes to international and regional protocols including the United Nation (UN) Convention on Rights and Status of Refugees, the OAU convention on refugee problems in Africa and the SADC protocol on facilitation of movement of persons. South Africa has one the most progressive migration management of refugees and asylum seekers.
While other countries retain refugees and asylum seekers in campus, in South Africa they are allowed to freely move and settle anywhere within the country. Despite a progressive and unique framework, South Africa’s migration management is termed by Amnesty International as control-oriented, rights-averse, hostile and exploitative of low-skilled African migrants. Poor decision-making attributed to lack of sound reasoning and mistakes on facts that have resulted into rejections have contributed to the backlog on appeals and undecided asylum status. The failed migration system has the nation experience some horrific waves of xenophobic attacks over the years. According to the Human Sciences Research Council, these hate crimes have been largely associated with South African’s feel of superiority over other African nationalities, false beliefs, exclusive citizenship or nationalism and the relative deprivation related to intense competition for jobs, housing and other commodities. Despite the threats and violence, the UN international Organisation for Migration (IMO) note that the proportion of immigrants grew from 2.8% in 2005 to 7% in 2019, making South Africa the largest recipient of immigrants in Africa. Given the migration management constraints majority of these immigrants are undocumented.
Amidst a failing migration system in South Africa, the COVID-19 crisis sparks a set of new challenges and implications on migration management. Now, the restrictions imposed to control the COVID-19 pandemic have expanded the focus on migration management to include the risk of mobility to individual health security. The COVID-19 pandemic has in some cases surpassed some existing migration debates such as forced repatriation, while in some cases it has been exploited for political gains. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be disruptive in every sense with several implications not only to migrants but also to the migration management.
Impact of COVID-19 on Migrants in South Africa
The catastrophic effects COVID-19 pandemic has compelled South Africa, like other countries to impose a national lockdown, restricting mobility within the country and across to other countries. South Africa imposed one of the strictest lockdown in Africa and the world at large, whereby there was no outdoor exercise, no alcohol and cigarettes. The lockdown restrictions were successful in controlling transmission from returning travellers and thus delaying the infection peak buying more time for emergency response preparation. However, the COVID-19 restrictions and the fact that majority of the migrants are undocumented has exacerbated further the threat on immigrants’ livelihood.
The COVID-19 restrictions have had a serious impact on the economic activities of migrant communities livening in South Africa. Majority of the migrants are low-skilled working in the informal sector, not eligible for government aid and often with a string of family members relying on remittances. The non-essential services and production especially in the informal sector experienced immediate impact from lockdown, thus resulting into reduced hours or complete job losses. As migrants, asylum seekers and refugees often self-employ in the informal work such as street vending and domestic work to earn their income, the lockdown restrictions has prohibited them to access their daily activities thus constraining their source of income. Therefore, thousands of migrants have migrated back to their countries of origin, such as Malawi, Zimbabwe and Nigeria, under repatriation arrangements to escape the poverty and uncertainty of life in South Africa.
Moreover, the pandemic has heightened further the struggle of migrant communities in accessing public services and appropriate government aids. Refugees and asylum seekers were overlooked in the distribution of COVID-19 aids and relief packages that included clothes and food parcels, thus forcing many to face starvation. Likewise, discrimination is observed in the administration of the COVID-19 business relief packages for which businesses owned by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are excluded.
On the other hand short stay migrants in South Africa found themselves stranded in the country with the closure of international borders. Due to its economic development and advanced medical services the country has attracted short stay migration from other Africa countries for business, vacation or medical reasons. This category of migrants usually have limited budget for their stay, with the closure of international borders they were forced to overstay the budgeted time. The repatriation transport arrangements, which were the only option during the national lockdown proved either too expensive in the case of flights or too risky given the pandemic for those considered affordable such as buses.
Implication of COVID-19 on migration management
Despite having progressive policies that facilitates local integration rather than refugee camps, the South African migration management is control-oriented, right averse and to some extend exploitative of immigrants. A typical example of this is the recently adopted amendments that waivers the automatic right to study and work. Apart from the effects that are directly experienced by migrant communities living in South Africa, the COVID-19 pandemic has several effects on the migration administration itself.
First, the COVID-19 pandemic has in some cases been exploited as an excuse to push and implement already-aspired stringent migration control policies. For instance, the securitized agenda to suddenly build a 40km fence at the South Africa – Zimbabwe border diverting critical resources needed to fight the infection. The pandemic has exposed South Africa’s securitized migration and refugee management approach more vividly as a national priority compared even to the immediate crisis.
Second, the amendments of the Refugee Act of 1998 that came into force in January 2020, not only do they further undermine human rights of the refugees but also adds another layer of bureaucracy to an already inefficient migration management. The new refugee laws take away various rights including the right to participate in political activity or campaigns, the automatic right to study or work. Asylum seekers and refugees need to be endorsed on their permit to study or work. For work, endorsement is only to those asylum seekers and refugees that without sufficient savings to sustain them for four months. Under these news laws, asylum seekers and refugees who already are working in precarious sectors are thus going to be more vulnerable to the COVID-19 economic effects.
Third, the national lockdown to control the pandemic has caused migrants and asylum seekers to waiting in suspension in an already overwhelmed South Africa migration management system. The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) suspended its operation granting an additional thirty days upon lifting of the national lockdown for renewal of permits that became invalid. However, DHA even at best of times barely copes with backlogs in administering permits and granting decisions for refugee status. This further exacerbate the lack of documentation consequently constraining migrants’ access to public services such as screening and testing, aids and support for COVID-19. The requirement of identification card or passport number has proven a barrier to non-citizens in accessing health care.
Fourth, some of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have perpetuated the already complex xenophobia problem. The announcement by the Minister of Small Business Development pertaining to the lockdown regulations, permitting only South African owned small shops – Spaza shops to operated claiming on ‘quality of food and surety of the quality of products’. With over 70 percent of spaza shops being immigrant-owned, such a decision forces residents of townships to go beyond their neighborhoods to buy food and other necessities posing more risk of infection.
Fifth, detention and deportation of illegal or undocumented immigrants increases the risk of COVID-19 infection. These acts perpetuate the poor treatment accorded to immigrants. Concerns regarding the poor conditions of detention facilities, exhibiting high chances of exposure to the virus have pushed for the suspension on deportation during the national lockdown.
Sixth, despite the extension of validity of asylum and other permits that expired during the lockdown, no provisions were made to new applicants. There is no clarity on new and pending applications of asylum seekers that entered the country immediately before the lockdown. Moreover, the administration of social and business relief grants against distress caused by COVID-19 pandemic excluded asylum seekers.
Maria Lauda Goyayi is a researcher at the School of Management, IT and Public Governance, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.