Johannesburg — The system allowing thousands of illegal migrants to work in South Africa needs changing, Home Affairs Minister Naledi Pandor said on Tuesday.
"This is an area that we don't have a proper grasp of, as the department of home affairs. It's one of the big challenges... we face as a country," she told a governance and administration cluster of ministries media briefing at Parliament.
It arose, primarily, from abuse of South Africa's asylum system.
"Our law is written in such a progressive manner that you essentially cannot deny anyone the claim and temporary status of asylum-seeker, due to a number of precedent-setting rulings of our courts, as well as various clauses of the Refugee Act.
"And the reality is that economic migrants are abusing the [act] in order to have status in South Africa."
Unlike many jurisdictions, South Africa granted temporary asylum status to applicants, and also gave them the right to work while they had such temporary status.
"So, we are bedevilled to some degree by our act, but our human rights jurisprudence would prevent us from making changes that detract from the essential core of the human rights character that we have in our Bill of Rights."
The department would recommend to the next administration, which would take office after the May 7 elections, to consider providing tools, permits, that gave credence to the fact of some refugees being economic migrants.
Further, that they should provide legal mechanisms, distinct from the asylum mechanism, to allow them to have status in the country while not clogging up genuine asylum-seekers' rights to access home affairs' services.
Pandor said thousands were working illegally in South Africa.
She called for proper funding for her department to tackle the problem.
"Government must fund home affairs properly, particularly the immigration domain, so that it has a proper inspectorate."
Many local firms employed foreign nationals but abused them. Knowing they were illegal they paid low wages and did not provide proper facilities or conditions of service, she said.
"All of that has to be stopped. But to do so you must have a vibrant, large, active, competent inspectorate. And an inspectorate of a few hundred people, as we have in home affairs today, is ridiculous, given the task and the challenge that this country must face."
Pandor stressed she was not saying no foreigners should be employed in South Africa.
"I'm saying we can't have a system where people are abused because they're foreign. And that's what many employers in this country are actually doing," she said.