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JEREMY MAGGS: The Home Affairs Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, has published a new white paper on citizenship immigration and refugee protection for public comment. He’s called for South Africa to, in his words, press the reset button when it comes to international agreements on refugee protection.
The minister is with us now and firstly, how does the proposed withdrawal from the 1951 UN (United Nations) Refugee Convention and then the 1967 Protocol (Relating to the Status of Refugees) align, I wonder, with international human rights standards and South Africa’s obligations under other existing international treaties?
AARON MOTSOALEDI: If you read my speech very well and even the white paper, we are not saying we’re withdrawing. We are saying the manner in which we entered it differs from lots of countries, especially on the African continent, because Article 42 of that convention gives countries the right to, when they ratify the convention, it gives them the right to present reservations and exceptions. In other words, things that they think they’re unable to do or things that are unacceptable to them. Almost every country did that.
Now, in 1996 when South Africa entered into the convention, it entered into it lock, stock and barrel, meaning everything that is in the convention must be done by the country that ratifies it and Jeremy, that is not possible. Even rich countries have got reservations where they show exactly that, which they may not be able to do because otherwise we’ll be promising things. We’ll be lying to people and saying we’re prepared to do everything when actually that is not so.
JEREMY MAGGS: So what specific changes are you recommending then?
AARON MOTSOALEDI: No, we are just saying we look into convention (Sic), we ask to withdraw, come back and correct it and start making changes. The ones I can make very clear even now because I don’t want to pre-empt the others because we’re making a proposal to the public that allows us in the white paper to do so. Then we’ll show you the changes.
The one I can make, for instance, is Article 33 of the convention that talks about non-refoulement. What South Africa did in 1998 was to take Article 33, sub-article one and left sub-article two, which actually gives an alternative when they are faced with a situation where somebody, for instance, is in a country, is a refugee, but is posing a danger to the country or to the security of the country, in terms of what we have signed for, we can’t refoul such people. That means you can’t send them back where they came from because you signed for non-refoulement for everybody. Those are the things that we would like to change.
JEREMY MAGGS: The important thing of course minister, is to make sure that there are specific measures in place that don’t compromise the safety and rights of genuine refugees and asylum seekers. How would you propose getting that right?
AARON MOTSOALEDI: Absolutely. They are compromised now, Jeremy, because of these lax laws and the problems that we’re having, the real refugees who deserve refugee status are not served because there are lots of people who are pretenders, who are not supposed to be part of the refugee regime of the country.
So they’re actually taking space for those who are real and bona fide refugees and it’s actually one of the things that we want to achieve. That’s why we call it a white paper on citizenship, migration and refugee protection.
JEREMY MAGGS: Minister, there is some concern that’s been expressed today that new policies might lead to increased xenophobia or discriminatory practices against migrants in South Africa. Are you cognisant of that and if so, how do you plan to deal with it or how would you deal with it?
AARON MOTSOALEDI: No, no, no, I don’t know exactly why they are saying so. Maybe they’re the ones who must come and show us where the concern comes from and exactly what is the basis of that concern. I don’t think we can stop correcting things in our country on the basis that whatever you do will be called xenophobia. I don’t think so.
I outline clearly in the speech exactly why, what led to these changes, what are the problems that we’re experiencing. That should be very clear and I’m not sure where xenophobia comes in there.
JEREMY MAGGS: Minister, ultimately, what is the government hoping to achieve from these changes?
AARON MOTSOALEDI: The government is hoping to achieve alignment of citizenship of the country, of refugee protection, of immigration because as it is now, these are three different laws that exist separately, and most of the time, they even contradict each other. Jeremy, the person you call a refugee today may end up being a citizen, so you are talking here of one person, but they are ruled by two different laws.
So when the white paper is accepted, we are hoping to make sure that the Citizenship Act is repealed in its entirety. The Citizenship Act of 1995, the Refugee Act of 1998 and the Immigration Act of 2002, we repeal them, and we start from scratch.
I even mentioned in the document that the Citizenship Act we have in the country is a replica of the relic of the past. It’s a replica of the 1949 Citizenship Act, which was under the Union of South Africa. If you read it, it’s male chauvinism and sexism and racism at its best and a few words have been changed there. It’s not in our DNA to have such an act.
JEREMY MAGGS: Minister, among the proposals in the white paper are that the powers of immigration officers and the inspectorate for immigration services be strengthened. You’re also calling for an independent immigration division to be established when it comes to the granting of visas, in what respect is that going to, or would you see that being enacted and why are those changes necessary?
AARON MOTSOALEDI: They are necessary because I clearly said the present system we are following is unworkable. It’s very weak and causing us problems. For instance, when you process somebody’s documents, Jeremy, you’ve got to understand international legislation because it’s a very complex area. The people who are using now (what’s) called refugee status determination officer are ordinary public servants. They always find it very, very difficult to interpret these rules.
Even when it comes to visas, Jeremy, we had to hire lawyers. We hired lawyers in January this year. Nine lawyers, we trained them for three months and they started work in April because we have realised that even the adjudication of visas gives people a tough time because they are very much integrated into international law and interpreting statutes cannot be done by an ordinary person.
JEREMY MAGGS: I’m going to leave it there. Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Minister of Home Affairs, thank you very much indeed, sir.