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A member of the South African Police Service escorts foreign migrants after being evicted from a temporary dwelling built in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Pretoria on April 21.MICHELE SPATARI/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa’s government, under pressure from a rising anti-foreigner mood among voters, has drafted plans to withdraw from the world’s refugee treaty and adopt a Canadian-style asylum determination system.

The scheme, unveiled this month and officially said to be modelled on Canada’s system, would restrict the entry of foreigners to South Africa by holding hearings to decide whether asylum-seekers can have refugee status.

Critics say the proposal is based on a misunderstanding of Canada’s rules and would create new barriers to refugees as a response to anti-migrant sentiments that have swept across South Africa and much of the world. Canada’s system, they note, did not require a withdrawal from the global refugee treaty.

The South African government says its current system is so leaky that it doesn’t have any idea of the number of undocumented foreigners in the country. Hostility to African migrants has reached such a peak that they are often victims of violent attacks and police harassment. Foreigners are widely blamed for South Africa’s high crime and unemployment rates, despite studies showing that they are not responsible.

“They get in and rape our women and children,” said Panyaza Lesufi, premier of South Africa’s most populous province, Gauteng, and a prominent member of the ruling African National Congress.

“They must not take advantage of our hospitality,” he told a public meeting last week. “They think they can hold us hostage, sell wrong food to our children, do as they wish, sell drugs to our children.”

The question of how to handle foreign migrants is emerging as one of the hottest issues in South Africa’s coming election, which is expected to take place in the middle of next year. A growing number of politicians and parties are demanding a crackdown on migrants, most of whom are from poorer African countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Somalia. Some ANC officials have called for mass deportations of foreigners, or job quotas to limit their employment, while vigilante groups have evicted foreigners, burned their homes or blocked them from entering hospitals.

In a white paper issued this month, South Africa’s Home Affairs Department says the “violent clashes between foreign nationals and citizens” are a result of “policy and legislative gaps.” It calls for the repeal of South Africa’s Refugee Act, which was introduced in 1998, four years after the end of apartheid, to protect the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers.

The white paper says the government should temporarily pull out of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the main United Nations treaty that guides the treatment of refugees and asylum-seekers. It says South Africa cannot afford the rights granted by the Convention and that the government made a “serious mistake” by accepting the treaty without adding any exemptions for domestic laws. The current system is “weak and unworkable” and “exploited by criminal syndicates,” it says.

At a news conference that accompanied the paper’s release, South African Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi complained that the refugee laws have led to court decisions “unfavourable to the interests of government.”

The white paper praises the Canadian system, saying it allows quick hearings for asylum-seekers at border entry points. This would eliminate the “long-winded and tedious appeal process” of the South African system, it says.

But critics say the South African proposals are a dangerous step back. Jason Brickhill, a Johannesburg-based human rights lawyer, said in a social media post that the white paper is “deeply regressive.” The proposals are “inspired by anti-migrant policies of right-wing European governments” and are an attempt to “strip away migrant rights in immigration and refugee processes,” he added.

Despite the white paper’s alarmist tone, the latest South African census – released last month – estimates there are only 2.4 million foreign-born people in the country, less than 4 per cent of the population.

The government says it deports about 15,000 to 20,000 undocumented foreigners annually. This year it created a new armed force, the Border Management Authority, to patrol the country’s borders and keep undocumented migrants out. The new agency has more than 2,000 staff members and a $120-million budget.

The South African office of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said the government did not seek any comment from the agency when it drafted the white paper. “UNHCR wishes to express its concern about the growing restrictions on the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees living in South Africa,” it said in a statement.

David Matas, a Winnipeg-based human rights lawyer who has decades of experience in refugee and asylum-seeker cases, said the white paper gives a false impression of the speediness of Canada’s system. In fact, the waiting time for refugee claims in Canada can be up to two years, and asylum-seekers are not held at Canadian borders while they await those decisions, he noted.

“The notion that the introduction of a Canadian-like system could lead to hearings at ports of entry is a fantasy,” he said.

In his legal practice, Mr. Matas has often represented African refugees who wanted to migrate to Canada because of discrimination they faced in South Africa. This hostility to migrants, which South Africans often call xenophobia, is a much bigger crisis than the procedural issues in the refugee system and can’t be resolved with bureaucratic reforms, he said.

“Their primary problem is widespread, systematic, continual, violent xenophobia,” Mr. Matas said.

“The notion that better refugee protection claims procedures will mitigate xenophobia is unreal. When refugee protection claims procedures are changed, the purpose of the change should be to enhance refugee protection. Unless that purpose is kept in mind, reforms may well end up putting the refugee protection claims system in a worse place than it now is.”

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