HONG KONG — South Africa’s foreign ministry has fired back against an Australian proposal to grant emergency visas to white South African farmers, after a leading Australian politician said the group needed protection in a “civilized country.”
White farmers “deserve special protection,” Peter Dutton, Australia’s home affairs minister, who oversees immigration, said in an interview on Wednesday, amid a debate in South Africa over redistributing white-owned land to black citizens.
“I think these people deserve special attention and we’re certainly applying that special attention now,” said Mr. Dutton, who proposed offering white farmers expedited visas to resettle in Australia on humanitarian grounds.
“We want people who want to come here, abide by our laws, integrate into our society, work hard, not lead a life on welfare,” Mr. Dutton said after watching a documentary about the rise in the number of South African farm murders.
South Africa’s government characterized Mr. Dutton’s remarks as regrettable and said white farmers were not at risk.
“There is no reason for any government anywhere in the world to suspect that any South African is in danger from their own democratically elected government,” Ndivhuwo Mabaya, a spokesman for South Africa’s foreign ministry, said in a statement. “That threat simply does not exist.”
The comments from Mr. Dutton, a member of the center-right governing Liberal Party, also raised eyebrows in Australia, where immigration is a hot-button issue and Liberal Party politicians have been accused of using race as a political tool.
Thousands of predominately Muslim migrants from the Middle East and Southeast Asia have languished in offshore detention facilities for years following a policy that denied asylum seekers traveling by boat entrance to Australia. Last year, Australia agreed to pay $53 million in damages to migrants who said they suffered abuse in the camps.
Mr. Dutton has been a staunch defender of the offshore detention policy, and he has argued that Australia should not accept refugees who would be a burden on the country’s social safety net.
In January, Mr. Dutton also blamed African migrants for a rise in crime in Melbourne, claiming in an interview that residents of the city were afraid even to go to restaurants at night “because they’re followed home by these gangs.”
“We just need to call it for what it is,” Mr. Dutton said. “Of course, it’s African gang violence.”
Critics of the government said those remarks were intended to scare voters before an election and that official crime data showed no such correlation with immigration.
According to government statistics, more immigrants to Australia are born in South Africa than in any other African country. As of 2016, 181,400 Australian residents were South African natives, according to the latest census. The government does not break down that figure by race, but white South Africans have been moving to Australia in large numbers for decades.
The question of redistributing white-owned farmland to blacks in South Africa became an issue again in February when Cyril Ramaphosa was elected president. The majority of South African farmland remains under white ownership more than 25 years after apartheid ended. This week, Mr. Ramaphosa’s governing party, the African National Congress, proposed a constitutional amendment to expropriate land without paying the landowners.