Feature: illegal migration and the impact of cross border crime

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South Africa is a land of opportunity for foreign criminals, says Dr Johan Burger, and with more than eight thousand foreign nationals in South Africa’s prisons out of an estimated two to eight million illegal immigrants, crime is one of the many serious consequences of illegal migration.

Dr Burger, a senior researcher in the crime and justice programme at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, says that, “Crime is no longer about borders. The planet has been reduced to the size of a computer screen.” He says that South Africa is “a land of wealth and opportunity but it’s also an opportunity for criminals.” South Africa has embraced democracy and a liberal bill of rights, but also guarantees rights to criminals. Inefficiencies in the criminal justice system don’t help the crime situation, he says.
“I want to emphasise that not everyone comes across the borders to commit crime,” Burger told defenceWeb‘s second annual Border Control conference. “Many are fleeing situations of conflict, unemployment, poverty…they see hope in South Africa but then criminals also come here in search of opportunity.”

It has been estimated that there are between two and eight million illegal immigrants in South Africa. There could be up to three million Zimbabweans and a million Mozambicans while some estimates suggest that one in every three Lesotho citizens lives in South Africa.

Professor Mike Hough from the University of Pretoria outlines some of the reasons for illegal migration, including poor borderline control; corruption, fraud and fake documentation; economic conditions in the home countries; opportunities for crime; and fraudulent asylum claims. He noted that people overstaying their visas is another issue. “We’ve probably got close to a million overstayers – nobody can tell you exactly,” Hough says. In addition, political instability in countries like Zimbabwe and Somalia is a leading cause of illegal migration. Hough notes that many Somali immigrants are required to seek asylum in the first friendly country, but often stay in refugee camps for only a week before coming to South Africa.

Illegal immigrants put a strain on existing resources as the police also have to provide protection for foreigners, Hough says. They also compete for land, housing, public services such as education and medical care and are a source of cheap labour to employers.

Cross-border crime is a major issue. In 2009/2010 the South African Police Service (SAPS) arrested more than 700 people in connection with stolen vehicles, illegal firearms and drugs along the border. The police seized 87 tons of dagga along the borders last year. However, Hough notes that the number of crimes committed by criminals within South Africa is far more serious.

An indication of the extent of foreign crime can be gained from the number of foreigners in South African prisons. As of September 2010, there were 8 589 foreign criminals in prison, costing the state approximately R470 million a year. This is up from 7 892 as of April last year. Most of the crimes committed by foreigners are aggressive and economic crimes. In line with migratory trends, the majority of criminals (3 712) were from Zimbabwe, followed by Mozambique, Lesotho, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Helmoed-Römer Heitman, South African correspondent for Jane’s Defence Weekly, says that smuggling weapons, people and narcotics is also a problem. “We know we have illegal immigrants; we know we have stolen cars crossing the border; we know we have illegal abalone,” he says. “I don’t think we have a clue how much goes on. No-one ever looks.”

Poaching is a serious issue, from abalone to rhinos. Last year 330 rhinos were killed in South Africa, including 146 in the Kruger National Park (KNP). Poaching is increasing in the northern part of the park, along the border with Mozambique. Hough says that ten rhinos are missing from the Limpopo border park. “I think we should have waited another 20 years before coming up with the idea of cross border parks,” he says, as poverty and political instability in neighbouring companies has the potential to jeopardise the parks.

Hough notes that some estimates put the number of foreign poachers at 20% of the total. Extreme poverty and poor socio-economic conditions in countries like Mozambique and Zimbabwe contribute to animal poaching, as well as stock theft, which is especially prevalent along the border with Lesotho. Hough says the drought and poverty in Lesotho is causing mass migration to South Africa.

Farmers along the borderlines often face the problem of stock theft, especially in areas like Lesotho where the border fence is practically non-existent. Kobus Breytenbach, deputy chairman of Agri SA’s safety and security committee, says that farmers also have to deal with farm attacks, vehicle theft, illegal grazing and drug smuggling.
“We had farm attacks from foreigners. These people come across the border, commit a crime and then run across the border again,” he says. “If you have a farm attack, that farm stands still for years and may be sold later.” He says on average it takes two years before production resumes on a farm after an attack.
“Stock theft is our biggest concern. Farmers do expect a lot of stock theft. There is not sufficient patrolling and that’s why we experience lots of stock theft and illegal grazing.” People drive their cattle across the border to better grazing grounds but under current law, it is impossible to arrest or convict anyone for unauthorised grazing. “There is no act regulating illegal grazing,” Breytenbach says.

With the unauthorised movement of cattle, South African livestock are at risk from things like foot-and-mouth disease. “My concern is we are going to spread animal disease if we don’t have proper border control,” Breytenbach says.

Earlier this month, the Inkatha Freedom Party said the non-existent fence line in the KwaZulu-Natal was to blame for the outbreak of foot and mouth disease there. “The broken down fence alongside the failure to enforce border controls has resulted in a free flow of infected cattle from Mozambique,” said agriculture, environmental affairs and rural development spokesperson Henry Combrinck. R25 million had been allocated to fix fences, but was not spent.

Illegal migration is also a cause for xenophobic attacks as locals believe that foreigners are taking their jobs. This is even a problem in Zimbabwe. Hough cautions that officials sometimes use xenophobia as an excuse to justify the deleterious socioeconomic conditions that often lead to xenophobic violence. “It can be an easy way for people to laugh off the problem saying these people are xenophobic and need to be educated,” he says.

Several thousand people are deported for committing crimes every year, but this number is growing. “What’s notable is the increase in crime deportations. That correlates with the increase in illegal migrants,” Hough says. In 2000, there were 810 crime deportations; 1 693 in 2005 and 3 293 between January and December 2010, up from 2972 in 2009. The majority were Zimbabwean, followed by Mozambicans and people from Lesotho.

The overall number of people deported from South Africa decreased dramatically between 2009 and 2010, from 105 960 to 56 793. In 2008, a total of 288 836 people were deported from South Africa. The majority of these are Zimbabweans and Mozambicans, but people from Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland are also deported. The main reason for the drop in deportations was the special dispensation to document the large numbers of illegal Zimbabweans present in South Africa. Up until December last year, undocumented Zimbabweans could apply to legalise their stay. The result was that 280 000 people applied, a figure Hough estimates is only 10% of the number of illegal Zimbabweans in the country. Hough says deportations will resume in August this year, after all applications have been processed. He notes that one of the problems with the dispensation is that people without documentation can claim to be Zimbabweans. “If someone claims to be a Zimbabwean but doesn’t have papers, what are you going to do?”

Hough says that the ministry of Home Affairs will document illegal immigrants from Mozambique and Lesotho in order to gauge their numbers, once all Zimbabweans have been documented. However, he worries that these people might not apply or might return home until the registration process ends.

The government has recognised that border security is an important issue and has made it a national priority. South Africa will get a dedicated Border Management Agency (BMA), but the organisation will only be formed in 2014, many years after it was originally envisioned in 2009. “We can’t afford the delay. That would put the borderline on the same level of priority,” Hough says. He adds that crime committed by foreigners will not be addressed solely by a strengthened borderline. “It will help but we need internal action as well.”

The border areas will be strengthened by the deployment of South African National Defence Force (SANDF) troops. According to Major General Barney Hlatshwayo, chief director of operations of the Joint Operations Division of the South SANDF, 22 companies will be deployed to the borders over the next four years. The SANDF will initially be deploying to the Kruger Park, Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe and will later move to Namibia and Botswana. There will be 1 168 SANDF personnel on the borderline in 2011/12 and 2 158 in 2013/14.

Burger notes that border control is just one part of the overall strategy and that, “If you want to look at border control you cannot look at border control in isolation – you need an integrated strategic understanding regarding the fight against crime. It is obvious that to be successful in the fight against crime we need much more than the individual efforts of state departments – we need clear role identification, structured cooperation and coordination, and an overarching national policy and strategy to guide all of these.”



Johnny Chabalala from Saab South Africa says the conventional approach to safeguarding borders is to deploy large numbers of troops. However, he emphasises the need for co-operation, command and control between all those involved in border security, from the army to home affairs, as a more efficient way to deal with the problem. “Border control is not a one man show, as border control needs to be planned and co-ordinated by all role players.”