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Protecting borders a collective task

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Picture: Supplied – Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi conducts an operation at BeitBridge border. As regards relations with neighbouring countries, and with the support of the minister of Home Affairs, the Border Management Authority should work closely with relevant government departments within the SADC framework, the writer says.

By B. Dikela Majuqwana

It has been reported that South Africa is at present home to millions of foreign nationals who have gained illegal entry into the country. The figure of 15 million is hard to believe but the public believes this statistic because the country’s borders are porous. It would appear there has been no effective control of the flow of people and goods in or out of the country for some time. This includes air, land, and sea borders.

Not long ago, social media went abuzz when a video showing Pakistani nationals apparently being smuggled through OR Tambo International Airport went viral. In the video, an army of Pakistani nationals are shown by-passing Home Affairs immigration controls as they took turns to crawl through an exit apparently meant for emergency purposes. Many people attribute the prevalence of this criminal behaviour to the failure of the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA) to control key access points in or out of the airport.

South Africa is also gaining a reputation as a global hub for human trafficking. This is underlined by the recent arrest in Mpumalanga of two Bangladeshis, Mujahid Hussain and Ishan Ullah. IOL reported the two had smuggled some 19 foreign nationals illegally into South Africa including 14 Bangladeshis and five Pakistanis. This highlights the important role of the Border Management Authority (BMA) launched by Home Affairs to improve the integrity of the country’s borders.

South Africa’s borders have been porous for many years since the end of apartheid in 1994, or even before. Those who gained entry into the country illegally have either settled in their criminal ways or have moved on to other countries as soon as they secured access to South African citizenship.

Uncovering these people is not the mandate of the BMA but it is apt to ask if this new agency of the government is up to the task it is meant to execute. If the objective of the BMA is to stem the tide of illegal immigration criminality and to regain control of our borders from criminals, it is important there is an effective strategy.

A key part of such a strategy is co-operation within the rest of the government, collaboration with neighbouring countries who share our borders, and co-operation with governments of the home countries of the illegal immigrants. The BMA cannot do it without the support of the justice, police, education, and health departments.

The Covid-19 pandemic taught us that the movement of people is closely linked with the spread of diseases and a failure to control borders is a major source of risk for the spread of unknown diseases. Most importantly, Covid-19 showed us disease is closely linked to the economic fate of whole nations if not the whole world. In other words, the BMA must adopt a multi-disciplinary collaborative approach to its work and must avoid any appearance that invites comparison to either the police, the defence forces or even the old home affairs.

The agency must act not only as a physical barrier to foreign criminality but also as a source of knowledge to be able to trigger a transformation in the way South Africa has in the past handled the movement of people and goods in and out of the country. As a source of knowledge, the goal is to help the rest of the government keep the costs of immigration control to a minimum and to facilitate better decision-making guided by foresight.

This is especially important because illegal migration is a global problem that all countries face. It will only get worse as the world population continues to grow if we consider the fact that key drivers of illegal immigration include high fertility rates, political instability, and economic dysfunction.

As regards relations with neighbouring countries, and with the support of the minister of Home Affairs, the BMA should aim to work closely with relevant government departments within the SADC framework. Member countries should work on joint projects to regularise immigration control processes and systems including sharing of important data of strategic importance.

For example, it is apparent the border with Zimbabwe is extremely busy and there is a lot of illegal immigration taking place. The problem cannot be left to either South Africa or Zimbabwe but must be handled within the SADC framework to make cross-border movement easy, safe, mutually beneficial to countries, and crime-free.

It is unacceptable that some SADC countries allow criminals to freely cross their borders en route to or from South Africa or to settle comfortably under the protection of SADC governments. A case in point is the ease with which the likes of South African convict and escapee Thabo Bester crossed the borders of so many countries recently only to be caught in distant Tanzania. Another example is the fact that prophet Shepherd Bushiri escaped a criminal case and is still on the run but comfortably protected by Malawi after he escaped from the law in South Africa.

Incidents involving failure to regularise immigration control with neighbouring countries within SADC will directly undermine the work of the BMA. The BMA will not achieve its mission by simply camping at the border but must actively make use of South African embassies to take preventive action and to play a detective role in relation to human trafficking that targets South Africa. For example, it is apparent there are active gangs in Pakistan and Bangladesh allegedly involved in crime in South Africa.

Within the AU, countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Somalia are featuring prominently as sources of alleged illegal immigration criminality targeted at South Africa. If the BMA is to be effective in its work, it must be predictive and proactive. To do this it must raise a cadre of professional operators who know the modus operandi of human traffickers in their home countries long before they reach South African borders where it is too costly to do anything.

Prof B. Dikela Majuqwana is a founding member of the National Union of Scientists and Engineers