Policy rethink must consider SA’s need for skills dividend

May 22nd, 2015Op-ed

Migration policy is challenging for all countries. Testimony to this is the rise in anti-immigrant populist parties in Europe, failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the US, and Australia’s controversial “stop the boats” asylum-seeker policy. Migration policy is difficult because it has to grapple with a politically volatile mixture of considerations: human rights, treaty obligations, diplomacy, national interests, security and economic growth.

In this mix of interests it is all too easy for the positive dividends of a managed immigration policy to be drowned out, especially when images of Africans drowning in the Mediterranean or being beaten, looted and killed in the streets of Durban or Johannesburg set the tone of public debate.

In SA, migration policy must be considered in the context of the national imperative of growth, employment and skills.

Since the late 1990s, the Centre for Development and Enterprise has developed practical recommendations for linking skilled immigration to growth. However, as we concluded in a major policy document in 2010, the contribution of immigrant skills to growth cannot be seen in isolation from other aspects of migration, such as undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers and we made detailed proposals covering all important aspects of migration policy.

In 2008, in response to the murderous attacks on people from other countries, the centre called for a commission of inquiry to learn lessons about how these tragic events came about and how they might be prevented. Perhaps if the call had been heeded, President Jacob Zuma would not have had to admit this year that we did not learn from 2008, and the terrible events of the past few months might not have occurred.

In the aftermath of the latest outbreaks of violence and destruction, we welcome Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s intention to rethink migration policy and offer the following points of departure:

  • The Centre for Development and Enterprise again calls for a judicial commission of inquiry into the January and April outbreaks. The country needs to know far more about the mixture of criminality, xenophobia, bad policy, misguided — or malicious — statements by public figures, intelligence failure, bad policing and other ingredients that went into these terrible events. We need a speedy, well-organised investigation that delivers facts and recommendations so SA cannot say in the future “we failed to learn from 2015”.
  • There has to be consistency across government on migration issues. There is no room for any Cabinet minister to make rogue statements on “foreign businesses in townships”. We need to stop demonising foreigners in explicit and implicit ways. One reason so little has been delivered in the way of skilled immigration is that there is no shared understanding across government about the positive link between immigrant skills and growth. While the Department of Trade and Industry may “get it”, the Department of Labour sees its role as protecting South Africans from foreign competition by making the process of skilled immigration as onerous as possible and the Department of Home Affairs swings from an obsession with security to positive statements about immigrants without implementation.
  • Asylum seekers: Serious resources must be devoted to this challenge. That there are 250,000 pending or failed asylum seekers in SA contributes to tension. The mismatch between one of the highest numbers of annual applications for asylum in the world, long delays and an acceptance rate of 10%-15% is a recipe for trouble.
  • Facts matter: More accurate information must be produced and dubious numbers challenged. Greatly exaggerated estimates of the numbers of “foreigners” in SA — often unquestioningly recycled by politicians, commentators and media — underpin the tension and resentment that lead to violence. For example, the only two reliable facts about Zimbabweans in SA are that 500,000 Zimbabweans applied for asylum between 2008 and 2013 and that, when the government introduced a special dispensation permit in 2009, which allowed Zimbabweans living in SA to regularise their status, Home Affairs received 294,511 applications. Despite this, the figure of 3-million Zimbabweans in SA is widely circulated.
  • Myths must be challenged: Research by the Centre for Development and Enterprise and others has conclusively dispelled assertions that large numbers of black graduates are unemployed, removing one of the popular arguments against skilled immigration. Research also indicates migrants create jobs rather than “steal them” and they are no more criminal than the local population.
  • Border management: The centre welcomes the announcement by Gigaba that a major priority will be to set up an effective border management agency in 2016-17. However, this “priority” has been around since the late 1990s, resurfacing six years ago in Zuma’s state of the nation address. Such an agency will have to be the instrument of smart and innovative policies for border management. Completely porous borders and totally sealed borders are neither desirable nor achievable. A reliance on fences and heavy policing will consume too many resources, disrupt cross-border trade, tourism and human rights and probably be doomed to failure. Careful thought needs to be devoted to how managing SA’s borders can be done cost-effectively and without unintended consequences.
  • Immigrant skills: It’s time to move from grudgingly allowing to enthusiastically encouraging foreign skills to help accelerate economic growth. The dire social and economic conditions that have helped give rise to the shocking violence against foreigners will be alleviated only if the economy grows much faster and in a more labour-intensive way. However, the long-standing huge skills shortage will prevent this.

SA’s failure to exploit the dividend of skilled immigration amounts to disabling self-harm. The enormous contribution of foreign skills to the US economy is well known — think Silicon Valley, where more than a third of companies have been started by foreigners. Many developing countries are coming up against skills shortages and preparing themselves to participate in the global competition for talent.

The violence of 2008 and this year cannot be neatly put in a box and labelled “xenophobia”. In 2008, one-third of the dead were South Africans and, then and again this year, there were disturbing signs that anti-foreigner violence could quickly turn to inter-ethnic attacks.

The warning signs are multiplying. SA is in dangerous waters. Accelerated and more labour-intensive economic growth is essential for stability. Managing the challenges of migration is a key part of what we need to get right. Crisis management is not the answer in this complex policy arena.

  • Ann Bernstein is the executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise. This article is based on numerous reports by CDE dealing with migration policy in SA. Find them here.

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