March 25, 2011

Government tightens immigration laws

The ruling African National Congress was forced to use its majority muscle to push the Immigration Amendment Bill through the National Assembly, following rejection of the measure by all the main opposition parties. The bill has attracted considerable criticism with its provisions that change the law for asylum seekers, particularly the one that now requires foreigners in South Africa to return to their home countries in order to change the status of their visas. Furthermore, asylum seekers previously had 14 days from crossing the border to make their way to refugee reception centres where they can apply for asylum. The bill will reduce this to five days. The Immigration Amendment Bill will also see illegally immigrated persons jailed for between two and four years.

Speaking to the media before the debate in Parliament, Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said: "We are saying 14 days is too long because we have seen how that gets abused. There is no port of entry in South Africa that is more than five days away from a refugee centre." She said there was a "critical mass" of people who come to South Africa on visitors' or medical visas and then don't return home. "We find it strange that someone can come on a visitors visa for a month and suddenly they never want to go back home. If they want to change their status, they must go back home and then apply for the new status back home."

The Minister also rejected opposition arguments that the bill would harm South Africa’s image abroad, that South Africa would fail to attract scarce skills, and that the bill was arguably unconstitutional for banning immigration practitioners from lodging visa and permit applications on behalf of their clients.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), the Congress of the People (COPE), the Inkatha Freedom Party and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) all said during debate on the bill that they would oppose it. Ms Dlamini-Zuma insisted that the ANC would not place on the statute book a law that was not in the best interests of the country. She said for those who obeyed the rules, the bill would make it easier to get a visa; but it also toughened up the measures that applied to those who did not abide by South Africa‘s rules. The bill was passed by 177 to 71 votes. (Business Day/The Sowetan/Sadocc)

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