South Africa is planning to temporarily withdraw from United Nations refugee conventions so it can restrict immigration.
The country’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) government has said it needs to “press reset” on liberal asylum and immigration policies it can no longer afford.
The proposed overhaul comes amid widespread public resentment at current levels of immigration, and as the ANC is expected to lose its overall majority in next year’s general election.
Immigration is likely to be high on the electoral agenda and polling earlier this year found 89 per cent of voters thought the ANC was not tackling the issue well.
A new government discussion paper proposes temporarily pulling out of the 1951 UN refugee convention and the 1967 refugee status protocol, so officials can tighten up restrictions.
Aaron Motsoaledi, home affairs minister, said South Africa made a mistake signing up to the treaties in the mid-1990s without insisting on opt-outs to certain clauses.
Under the proposed reforms, South Africa would rejoin the conventions after restricting the right for refugees to work, as well as the right to education and the right to claim citizenship.
New laws would also be introduced to make it easier to send refugees back to countries no longer deemed dangerous.
The current liberal laws were adopted in the 1990s when the ANC embraced a pan-African stance on immigration, in part to show thanks to countries that had supported its struggle against apartheid.
Mr Motsoaledi said the policies were now outdated and needed a “radical overhaul”.
He said: “On this continent, the winds of change have been blowing hard and fast. Almost every week there is a coup somewhere in Africa.”
‘Fertile ground for violent clashes’
The ANC says the country’s outdated patchwork of immigration laws needs to be replaced because it has too many vulnerable gaps and loopholes. It argues these have been exploited by traffickers, criminals and economic migrants.
“The policy and legislative gaps within the Department of Home Affairs have created a fertile ground for violent clashes between foreign nationals and citizens, including [the] emergence of belligerent groups, either siding [with] or against the current migration system,” its white paper said.
South Africa’s middle income status, its relative wealth, job opportunities and its democratic institutions mean it attracts more migrants than any other country on the continent.