Media reports and public comments on undocumented and illegal immigrants carried in the local press over the past few weeks have made interesting reading. Of particular interest is the fierce debate on the social tensions brought about by the influx of illegal migrants from neighbouring Zimbabwe. The debates have evoked both sympathy and xenophobia.
The thrust of the on-going debate has centred on the effectiveness of the country’s immigration management regime and the involvement of illegal immigrants in crime. Evidently, the current clean up campaigns and apprehensions together with the “revolving door” in the deportations of illegal immigrants have proven ineffective tools in the fight against the surge of illegal aliens while the escalation and ferocity of crimes involving illegal immigrants has fuelled the prevailing social tensions and xenophobic tendencies.
The unfolding events and increasing political instability and economic crisis in neighbouring Zimbabwe have presented a huge socio-economic and political challenge to Botswana. “Matlo go sa mabapi ÔÇô Ngumba ko tshwa dza ka bapa”, Botswana is inextricably linked to the problems and solutions of the world, especially those of her neighbours.
A knee-jerk reaction of a crackdown on illegal immigrants by joint operation teams of the Botswana Police Service and Defence Force units are no solutions to this problem. The country needs to find a lasting solution to the problem.
It was, therefore, refreshing to read about the progressive reflections of the Deputy Commissioner of the Botswana Police Service, Kenny Kapinga, who challenged the effectiveness of deportations. The deportations, he said, must be considered in the context of cost to government and a fair assessment of whether or not illegal migration is being effectively discouraged.
Kapinga challenged the country to analyse the socio-economic, political and legal issues that impact on law enforcement organisations in order to deal effectively with illegal immigrants. He stated that, “The time has come for Batswana to change their attitude towards illegal immigrants and, instead, harness this human capital for economic growth.”
Kapinga is spot on; the militaristic immigration policies the world adopted following 9/11 have proven to be dysfunctional. Immigration laws are aimed at balancing national integration and security.
National security issues are now wildly perceived beyond just issues of political stability and countering threats aimed at human beings, assets as well as national and international interests of the country.
Security is best understood in the contemporary context of “freedom from fear”.
Fear that immigrants will bring alien values that will disrupt or dilute local values, by nativism or general fear of strangers, fear of wage and benefit reduction through the availability of less costly labour, concerns of adverse impact on public services, or security interests regarding criminals or terrorists.
It has been argued that while most illegal immigrants have come only to seek work and a better economic opportunity, their presence outside the law furnishes an opportunity for criminals to blend into the same shadows while they commit crime.
The new immigration realities advocate for giving illegal aliens legal status to bring them out of the shadows.
It is far better to manage the problem this way than the current circus of clean up campaigns which are an enormous drain on public funds. The vast majority of illegal immigrants work in low-skilled, low-wage jobs that most Batswana shun.
Accommodating illegal immigrants by offering them legal status will answer the country’s skills shortage especially in the least attractive, low income jobs such as domestic work, farm hands, gardening and construction labour that few Batswana would do.
The active participation of illegal immigrants in the local economy would also stimulate the much needed growth and they would be able to pay tax for services rendered.
The promotion of immigration is key to economic growth, cultural diversity and general development of a country. Global and African economic leaders such as the US, China and South Africa with its migrant labour policy in the mining industry were built on migrant labour.
The argument that offering illegal immigrants legal status would inadvertently be interpreted as a message that the country condoned illegal immigration, and would perpetuate the problem should be viewed against the fact that notwithstanding current immigration controls, apprehensions and removals, illegal immigrants continue to flock back into the country.
The link between illegal immigration and crime is regrettable. It is, however, not unique to Botswana. It is based on aesthetic prejudices and xenophobic inclinations of citizens. The involvement of foreign nationals in crime should be viewed in light of the complicity of citizens who provide a ready market for the ill-gotten merchandise.
The recent vicious attack on a Gaborone businessman is just one case of many that attest to the involvement of locals in the surge in crime.
Following the violent attack by axe wielding thugs, Cassim Desai remarked that, “Sometimes as Batswana we are quick to blame Zimbabweans, but our youths are more dangerous and continue to terrorise our communities.”
Illegal immigration is by no means a victimless crime; however, the current joint cleanÔÇôup campaigns by the Botswana Police Service and the BDF are ineffective and only serve to compound the burden of the upkeep and transportation of illegal immigrants on the victims.
Botswana needs to take a fresh look at its immigration controls and management regimes in order to find a lasting solution to illegal immigration. Apprehensions and deportations are not yielding the desired results as the numbers of new and repeat offenders continues to rise.
The joke at my watering hole in Maun is that, as Christmas approaches, many illegal immigrants will hand themselves over to law enforcement agencies for a free ride back home. Wouldn’t it be better to engage our neighbours more productively and get them to pay tax than to keep them in prisons and transport them home at such exorbitant costs to tax payers?