Policing Migration in South Africa: Disinformation, development, and accountability

Although South Africa has long relied on labour from across its borders, international migrant, regardless of legal status, have been continually blamed for many of the country's social ills: HIV/AIDS, cultural decay, unemployment and, naturally, crime. In this light, it is not surprising to hear the police express the unrealistic assertion that tightly controlling the borders would effectively combat local and transnational crime and may even help protect migrants themselves.

by Loren B Landau and Julia Hornberger 

On 2 March 2010, Provincial Police commissioners went before the South African parliament insisting that, 'illegal immigrants are stretching police resources and manpower'. The acting chief of police for Gauteng Province —home to Johannesburg and Pretoria—argued that the government had simply not budgeted for the 3 million illegal immigrants in Gauteng and the millions elsewhere in the country. With such an influx, it was nary impossible to combat crime. While their claims are misleading and inaccurate, they do point to the lack of adequate planning for human mobility and the ease which human mobility can be blamed for development failures.

The realities of migration and criminality

Although South Africa has long relied on labour from across its borders, international migrant, regardless of legal status, have been continually blamed for many of the country's social ills: HIV/AIDS, cultural decay, unemployment and, naturally, crime. In May 2008 these tensions helped generate anti-migrant violence that killed more than 60 people and displaced well over 100 000. In this light, it is not surprising to hear the police express the unrealistic assertion that tightly controlling the borders would effectively combat local and transnational crime and may even help protect migrants themselves. To be sure, a larger population, mobility, and heightening social and economic heterogeneity make policing more a more challenging task. But good policing —like any form of policy— relies on a sound understanding of the empirics. If police claims were right, illegal immigrants would represent almost 30 percent of Gauteng Province's total population. However, the 2007 Community Survey by Statistics South Africa —the most recent and most accurate data available— show that international migrants comprise only 5 percent to 6 percent of the population; roughly 580,000 people. At a national level,the same survey found that foreign-born residents (including South African citizens) were just 2.79 percent of the total population, somewhere around 1.2 million. That number has since climbed, but is unlikely to have topped 2 million. Not only are there fewer foreigners than the police (and many South Africans) imagine, but there is no empirical evidence that foreigners are disproportionately involved in criminal activity. With immigration so much less significant than the police's alarmism suggests and crime so prevalent, it would take a hyper-active, criminally inclined immigrant population to claim a serious portion of the country's robberies, rapes, and murders.

What's behind these claims and what are they costing?

Given the country's inability to combat developmentally disabling levels of criminality, the migrant spectre provides the police a materially and politically profitable resource. Since immigrants are easy to find and have few legal protections, police can embellish their performance statistics through night raids, round ups, road blocks, and arbitrary arrests. At other times, threats of such actions can be used to generate extra pocket money. The fact that so many citizens believe that the country is being drowned by a 'human tsunami', makes these actions all the more possible. While politically valuable, current immigration policing practice comes at significant costs to the country's finances and security. In a report issued in September 2009 (One Burden Too Many? A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Immigration Policing in Gauteng), researchers concluded that the Gauteng police spend approximately one quarter (26 percent) of its human resource budget on immigration policing. This without evidence that their efforts are making South Africa safer. Indeed, in an environment of resource scarcity, targeting people because they are foreign means not targeting people because they are criminals. To be fair, some station commissioners have issued instructions to restrain immigration enforcement. However, to fully counter these tendencies will require more prohibitive directives and different ways of measuring police performance.

Where the police is right

The police have exaggerated the numbers, but they are right that migration is a concern for public servants across the country. While Gauteng may not have 3 million immigrants the police claims, there are close to 3.9 million Gauteng residents who were born in other provinces. Other urban centres are also becoming destinations and transit points for people leaving villages, rural areas, and former 'homelands'. In many instance, the fastest urbanization rates are in small or peri-urban municipalities with few financial and human resources. Unfortunately, few municipalities or provinces have projected this growth, let alone planned for it. Even if they had, the national system of resource allocation provides little support for local authorities preparing for growing populations. Instead, resources are allocated based on past numbers, all but guaranteeing shortfalls. Migration is not the only cause of lagging service delivery, but poor planning makes such underperformance almost inevitable.

Where to go from here?

It is imperative to find ways to improve planning for human mobility across South Africa's public services. Without a good grip on how people are moving, where they live and what they do, planning for security, education, waste management, housing, and health care will all be compromised. The first step in addressing this need is to develop a sound empirical basis for public policy decisions. The country's budgeting process must also be reformed so local authorities are supported for the population they have and those that are likely to come through migration or natural increase. There is also an imperative to shift policy so the police are not doing immigration control. This can begin with pragmatic reforms to immigration policy that allow people to move into the country legally and without fear. Pragmatic reforms will also help prevent migrants from slipping further into zones of informality and illegality by giving them a chance to embrace the formal system of policing, access the courts, and help fight crime.

Related article: Two-Tiered Justice: Anti-Immigrant Laws in the United States by Walter A. Ewing

 

Julia Hornberger is researcher with the Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburgh.

Loren Landau is director at Forced Migration Studies Programme, University of Wotwatersrand, Johannesburgh