CHANGING ATTITUDES TO IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE POLICY IN BOTSWANA

Series Editor: Jonathan Crush

Southern African Migration Project

Migration Policy Series No. 28

PLEASE NOTE: Readers are welcome to reproduce and reference
this article as long as appropriate acknowledgments are given.


 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

 

For the last two decades, Botswana has had the reputation as a "country of immigration," based on the large-scale import of

skilled expatriates from Africa, Asia and the West. This policy has been accompanied by a general acceptance, and even openness, on the part of Batswana towards non-citizens. In the late 1990s, however, these attitudes began to change, with intolerance towards non-citizens growing in a country where it was unknown only a few years earlier. Against this background, the University of Botswana mounted the SAMP National Immigration Policy Survey (NIPS) in Botswana in 2001. This survey delved into two basic areas: (a) citizen perceptions of immigrants, migrants and refugees groups and (b) attitudes towards Botswana’s own national immigration policy. The research is important for a number of practical reasons:

While the actual effects of legal and unauthorized immigration on Botswana’s economy and society are unknown, this does not stop Batswana from believing that immigration has negative effects. The consistency of the responses throughout this survey indicates that Batswana are becoming less tolerant towards in-migration and displaying an attitude profile that is increasingly in line with countries such as South Africa and Namibia which are generally considered to be highly intolerant of outsiders. This is surprising for a country that has, since independence, adopted one of the most open policies in the region towards immigration.

 

Batswana now tend to feel that there are too many immigrants in the country, that they are losing jobs to foreigners (although few could cite an instance of this actually happening) and that foreign citizens were transferring too much money out of the country. The majority oppose permanent residence for immigrants. On the other hand, immigrants who bring skills that are in short supply locally or who are willing to invest and create jobs are still very welcome.

 

The greatest shift in attitudes is in favour of much tighter controls over borders and greater internal enforcement. A very high percentage favour electrification of borders with neighbouring states. Most also want non-citizens to carry ID’s with them at all times. Employers who hire people illegally should be prosecuted. At the same time, people feel that the rights of temporary residents and, especially, unauthorized migrants should be severely curtailed.

 

The underlying reason for the growth in intolerance seems to be related to actual changes in migration patterns to Botswana. The economic and political problems of Zimbabwe in particular have clearly led to a significant increase in unauthorized migration to and through Botswana. The Botswana authorities have become considerably more active in arresting and deporting unauthorized migrants. Further adding to the public visibility of the issue, the media and politicians have begun to identify the presence of "illegal immigrants" as a problem.

 

Once an "enemy" is identified in this way, attitudes towards all people from the region and all non-citizens are in danger of deteriorating, as they have in South Africa. A clear danger is that people begin to exaggerate the negative, and forget about the positive, impact of the presence of non-citizens in the country. In South Africa, for example, people are hostile towards all non-citizens, whether they are in the country legally or not.

 

In terms of policy recommendations, there is no room for complacency. If the Botswana government wants to continue to pursue its forward- looking policy on immigration, then citizens (and voters) need to be reminded of why this policy is good for the country in the first place. Second, it is clear from this survey that people are becoming increasingly alarmed about the presence of people illegally in the country. In South Africa, this has resulted in systematic abuses of basic human rights, in wild exaggerations of the numbers of unauthorized migrants, in stereotyping about their impacts, and in physical attacks on innocent

people. Botswana presumably does not want to go down this particular road. There is still time to avoid the descent into the kind of xenophobia one witnesses in South Africa. But opinion-makers need to speak up on the issue before it is too late.