South Africa's tourism industry has reacted with dismay to the new regulations announced by the Department of Home Affairs last year, as part of the Immigration Amendment Act. It appears the new regulations were decided on without any input or consultation from the tourism industry, which is directly affected by new visa and immigration requirements.
Among the new immigration rules is the requirement that anyone travelling with minors (children under the age of 18 years) needs to produce an unabridged birth certificate for each child showing the names of both parents, when entering or exiting South Africa. This is in addition to carrying a passport, of course, which is the globally accepted form of travel document.
According to the DHA, these new regulations are necessary to help prevent child trafficking. On the surface, this seems noble and laudable. Human trafficking is a global problem, and if some news reports from 2013 are to be believed, up to 30 000 children in South Africa are trafficked every year, mostly into the sex trade. Perhaps the new regulations were in reaction to these news reports. If these estimates are accurate, we can all agree that tighter regulations are needed to prevent child trafficking.
But these estimates are not accurate. According to Africa Check, a fact-checking organisation that aims to separate fact from fiction, the claim that 30 000 children are trafficked every year is fiction.
Exaggerated claims about child trafficking have been doing the rounds since before the World Cup, mostly backed by NGOs whose funding efforts are helped by alarmist headlines. The bigger the crisis, the easier it is to raise funds.
It turns out the figure of 30 000 children being trafficked appears to be wildly inaccurate, arising from unsubstantiated claims made by non-profit organisations who address human trafficking and rely on public funding for their projects. A more accurate picture emerges when you look at how many cases of missing children have actually been reported in South Africa.
According to Missing Children SA, using 2013 statistics from the SAPS Missing Persons bureau, up to 1 697 children are reported missing per year, of which about 77% are found. This means about 390 children go missing and are not found. While this should concern us gravely, very few of these missing children, if any, are the result of cross-border child trafficking.
The World Cup did also not turn out to be the human trafficking disaster that some NGOs and the media predicted. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2012 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority reported that 13 children were victims of child trafficking in the year from 2010 to March 2011. That's 13 too many, but 13 is a long way from the figure of 30 000 that has been widely quoted, and perhaps influenced the drafting of these new immigration regulations.
Other statistics seem to confirm this. Between 2004 and 2010, the International Organisation for Migration assisted a total of 57 children in Southern Africa who were victims of human trafficking. That's fewer than 10 per year. Chandre Gould's months of research into the sex work industry in Cape Town showed only a handful of children working as sex workers, and none of them as a result of human trafficking.
Sensationalism and media hype can be extremely damaging when fictitious or exaggerated claims start to be treated as fact, in particular by government. To quote researcher Chandre Gould: “Such overestimations, while successful in capturing public attention and generating moral outrage, do not provide a sound basis for policy-making and resource allocation.” And that is exactly what seems to have happened here. A knee-jerk and harmful policy decision made on the basis of media hype about human trafficking.
So we know that international, cross-border child trafficking is a much smaller problem than some media reports and NGOs will have us believe. It is also widely acknowledged that the majority of illegal, cross-border human trafficking occurs via land borders or sea ports, not via airports. Yet we face the implementation of a wide-reaching, tourism-damaging amendment to the Immigration Act, which amongst other things will require anyone travelling with a child to produce an unabridged birth certificate.
Why is this a problem?
Firstly, because it is unnecessary, as we have seen. Child trafficking into and out of South Africa via our airports is a very small problem, in the greater scheme of things. We are talking about a tiny handful of possible cases, not 30 000 children per year.
It will also not help. International child trafficking criminals and syndicates will either bribe Home Affairs officials for fake documents (as they already do often enough with passports), or they will simply avoid our airports and use our notoriously porous land borders and sea ports. So these regulations will not achieve the stated goal of reducing child trafficking.
It is also not practical. Home Affairs is already struggling to deliver the services they are meant to deliver, in reasonable time. Unabridged birth certificates are supposed to take 4-6 weeks, but in reality they often take much longer. My own anecdotal experience is a tiny example of this – it took 15 months from the time of applying for my children's unabridged birth certificates until I finally had them. During that time, Home Affairs lost my children's original documents not once but twice, and I had to reapply from scratch both times.
Beyond our borders, families with children wanting to visit South Africa have to rely on their government departments or in some cases those of other countries (if the child was born in another country) to apply for unabridged birth certificates. Some of these are even more difficult to deal with than our own DHA, or they may not issue such an unabridged certificate at all. If the birth certificates are in a different language, it appears they will need to have them translated (although there has been conflicting feedback from DHA in this regard).
Imagine having to travel with children at relatively short notice, to a funeral or wedding or some family event. Many, many people plan their overseas travel less than six months in advance, and the risk that Home Affairs will not be able to produce the unabridged birth certificates in time is very real.
Imagine a foreign school trying to plan a sport or educational tour to South Africa, or a local school planning a tour to England for example. Imagine trying to secure unabridged birth certificates as well as affidavits giving consent to travel, for all children, in time. It is a practical nightmare.
Furthermore, these requirements will discourage tourism to South Africa. As a long-haul destination struggling to shed our reputation as an unsafe, crime-infested nation, the last thing we need is additional deterrents to discourage travel to South Africa. Families will simply consider other destinations. Competing destinations like East Africa, Brazil, Asia or Australia may suddenly seem a bit more attractive if one doesn't have to apply for a visa in person and doesn't have to produce an unabridged birth certificate.
Finally, it is not international best practice to require unabridged birth certificates as a travel document, in addition to a passport. I am not aware of any other countries that require this. With child trafficking being a global concern, one would expect many other countries to have implemented similar measures, if it could solve the problem.
It is essential that we combat child trafficking. But the policies and regulations we implement in order to try and do so, need to work, need to be practical, and need to show a reasonable benefit vs cost. In the case of these new immigration regulations, the benefit is much less than perhaps anticipated by government, and the cost is potentially much higher than anticipated, in the form of lost tourism revenue, damage to the economy and damage to our brand reputation as a destination.\