Migration Policy Briefs
Balsillie School of International Affairs
Research on unauthorised migration to South Africa has addressed a range of issues surrounding the effects of current immigration policy on migrants, and the impact migrants have on South Africa’s society and economy (DHA 1997: section 1.4.6). One finding that is particularly relevant to a discussion of regional labour migration regimes is that current South African immigration policy does not account for labour migrants who retain a social and domestic base in their countries of origin. Another is that most unauthorised migrants are temporary or contract workers who seek employment in industries—such as construction—that depend increasingly on this kind of labour. The needs of these sectors and of migrant workers are complementary.
Just as these migrants are currently unable to legalise their status in South Africa, there is no appropriate method for all local employers to access foreign labour. The new Immigration Act is extremely opaque on whether this will change. The ideal would be to develop a regional temporary worker’s regime. Such a system is necessary not only for South Africa but for southern Africa generally, if integrated regional development is to succeed.
In the context of regional economic integration, labour migration can arguably be conceived of as a development resource, beneficial to all states in the region and regional integration as a whole, rather than as a threat to individual states. The purpose of a regional regime should be to manage migration in order to harness human mobility—as an agent of the exchange of goods, services, ideas and skills—to the development process.
This understanding suggests that the political management of regional labour migration extends beyond the ambit of unilateral migration control and state interests; becomes the responsibility of collaboration between migrants’ countries of origin and destination; straddles the divide between domestic and foreign policies as well as state sovereignty and regional markets; and should be negotiated and formulated in a regional multilateral forum. As regional economic integration proceeds, the interests of sovereign states become increasingly bound up with those of their neighbours as well as those of non-state actors. Thus, in addition to governments, stakeholders that must be involved in formulating a regional migration regime include business, organised labour, and the citizenry of host and receiving countries.
This regional focus is in keeping with the impact of globalisation which has largely redefined the spatial and geographic distribution of labour as well as economic competition, resulting in the emergence of regional economic blocs in central and western Europe (the European Union); North America, Canada and Mexico (NAFTA); the AsianPacific rim; the Middle East; West Africa; East Africa; and part of South America.
Because regional blocs differ in various ways, it is not possible to derive a blueprint for Southern Africa from comparative studies. Surprisingly, although new global migration dynamics are both a cause and function of increasing regional economic integration, there is currently no workable regional labour migration regime anywhere in the world. This raises the question of whether, and to what extent, contemporary governments are able to control or manage migration.
What is possible and useful, and what this paper does attempt, is to draw out connections between the Southern African context and others in which such regimes have been implemented. The paper also evaluates the development impact of labour migration regimes, in order to explore the extent to which institutionalised migration from sending countries (countries of origin) to receiving countries (countries of destination) stimulate or impede economic growth, and to highlight the political challenges they present.
The paper argues that: (a) the proximity of countries among which people migrate has a decisive influence on the way in which those countries manage migration;(b) although migration policy is often seen as a tool for managing domestic labour markets, and thus often privileges economic rather than social and political factors, migration is also an important issue for political management and governance; and (c) migration can usefully be regarded as a development resource rather than a threat to social and economic security, and ought to be managed accordingly. It then proposes a set of principles drawn from international experience which might usefully inform a regional labour migration regime, rather than advancing a rigid regulatory framework which is unlikely to succeed.
Crush, J. & Williams, V., eds. (2003). Regionalizing International Migration: Lessons for SADC (rep., pp. 1-22). Waterloo, ON: Southern African Migration Programme. SAMP Migration Policy Brief No. 11.