An economically sensible policy, putting our citizens first, could be created in SA, write Ann Bernstein and Simon Dagut.

Successful migration management begins by thinking less about the rights of migrants and refugees and more about the interests of citizens.

Last year’s anti-foreigner violence was the most dramatic proof yet that South Africa is not managing migration effectively.

There is plenty of other evidence that we are doing badly in this crucial area. We had a backlog of over 200 000 unprocessed asylum claims at the end of 2008. Despite crippling shortages of skilled professionals in many fields including medicine, 97% of our skilled migration quota work permits went unused in 2007/8.

How can experience in other countries help South Africa to create a migration management system that supports economic growth, job creation, and development and that does not undermine our country’s commitment to human rights?

A country’s migration system should highlight the best interests of its citizens. As Tamar Jacoby, one of America’s leading advocates for migration policy reform, puts it:

“At least in the United States, it is not effective to appeal to human rights. Americans are not remotely interested in the rights of people from outside their political community. You need to think and talk about migration in terms of the national interest. The national interest is not just economic – it includes the right to protect the nation’s values and sense of itself.”

This does not mean that policy makers need to encourage or pander to xenophobia. Most people aren’t firmly xenophobic. In general, voters are pragmatic and willing to accept immigration if they do not have the impression that irregular immigration is out of control and if they can be reassured that it will benefit the country.

Governments wanting to manage migration effectively should therefore begin by taking steps to reassure their citizens that they are in control of the situation, that borders are being effectively managed and that migrants are not obtaining unfair access to welfare and other public resources.

These steps are essential preconditions for a sustainable, humane and economically appropriate migration strategy. The international evidence is clear: if you can’t reassure locals that migration is under control, there is a greatly increased risk of an anti-foreigner backlash that will make it much more difficult to protect refugees and accept economic migrants.

Effective migration management depends on reliable information. Countries need to develop a clear sense of how many people are arriving and leaving, who they are, what skills emigrants have taken with them; what jobs immigrants are doing and could do; where they live; what they contribute to the economy and society overall; and what other consequences arise from their presence in the country.

Drawing on the information they are gathering, governments should spread the message that migration is not out of control. Particular localities will experience rapid inflows from time to time – and governments should be prepared to deal with the local pressures that will arise.

There is no evidence that any reasonably sized country – including South Africa – will be “submerged” in immigrants. Worldwide, no more than 3% of people ever migrate from their home country. All the research (by ourselves and others) indicates that it is highly unlikely that there are more than about 3 million foreign-born people among South Africa’s population of around 50 million.

The case for skilled and entrepreneurial migration really is a “no brainer”. It is estimated that each skilled migrant to the United States adds around US$200 000 (R1.5 million) to public finances.

Skilled and entrepreneurial migrants do far more than expand the tax base. They link countries to global markets, pass on their skills and fill niches not occupied by locals – for instance, by running low-cost retail outlets in rural areas. Best of all, skilled and business migrants create jobs. They do this both by bolstering demand and by directly hiring locals. CDE research has found that, on average, one in every four immigrants to Johannesburg directly employs a South African.

Definitions of skills and of entrepreneurship should be broad. A skilled plumber or a successful small business owner can be as valuable as a university-trained engineer or the country manager of a large corporate investor.

Governments should distinguish as clearly as possible between refugees and economic migrants, between legal migrants and illegal or irregular ones – and then develop realistic ways of handling all the different kinds of migration.

South Africa has received a large number of migrants from Zimbabwe, some of whom are fleeing political oppression and violence, and some of whom are extremely poor. We are trying to manage this flow using a European-style case-by-case refugee management system. This is not working. We should probably be looking much more closely at how other developing countries and African states manage asylum and refugee issues with the assistance of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

We could learn from Malaysia and Thailand, who administer unskilled economic migration, using simple “pay-to-play” systems. If employers want to bring in workers, all they have to do is pay the migrant as much as a local person in the same job, plus an additional levy. As a result, employers only hire foreigners if they genuinely can’t find a local to do the job. The levies collected go into a training fund for local workers.

Countries that manage migration will have strategies to facilitate integration. Immigrants and locals must both come to feel that newcomers are politically and socially integrated into their new home country. The international experience is that integration is more successful when it emphasises shared economic goals and the rule of law. In South Africa’s case, we should be unapologetic about expecting newcomers to respect our Constitution and the values it embodies.

It is possible to create a workable, economically sensible migration policy in SA that does not undermine human rights and is supported by a solid majority of voters. This will not happen automatically. Strong leadership, a simple clear policy rooted in national interests and effective ongoing communication to the different South African interests affected is required to show voters that migration can be managed in the national interest.