Migration scholars release statement on international migration situation in South Africa

CATEGORY: Developmental, Capable and Ethical State
DATE: 13 April 2022

Pretoria, Wednesday 13 April 2022 – International migration in South Africa (SA), particularly as it relates to the labour market, is a highly contentious topic.  We, the undersigned migration scholars, wish to share relevant information about this important topic.  Our work shows that only a small quotient of the SA population are international migrants, and that the overall effect of international immigration on the labour market is not detrimental.

Preliminary data analysis from the 2021 round of the South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) finds that the majority of the general populace views foreign nationals as a threat. A plurality believes that foreigners are a major source of unemployment and other socio-economic problems. It would appear that anti-immigrant sentiment has grown since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a consequence of it. The general public would appear to be misinformed about the impact of international migration and how it affects the national labour market. This links with prior research put out by the Human Sciences Research Council. Many of the main misconceptions are anchored in an overestimation of the number of foreign-born nationals in the country.

As the undersigned, we are committed to developing effective policies and interventions that will provide South Africans with the economic and physical security they deserve. We also do not wish to dismiss the lived realities of the South African people. To do this, we need to ensure our interventions are founded on the best available facts and this statement aims to provide the most relevant and reliable evidence around migration and labour migration in particular.

Population size

How many foreign nationals live in SA? Existing public opinion data shows that the general public is woefully misled about the size of the non-national population (Figure 1). Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) has conducted three national censuses since the democratic transition (1996, 2001 and 2011), with the Census 2022 currently underway. The number of those born outside SA were 958 188 in Census 1996, 1,03 million in Census 2001 and 2,2 million in Census 2011[1]. Post-census, Stats SA conducts a post-enumeration survey (PES). The main goal of the PES is to evaluate the completeness of census coverage and to provide an adjustment factor to compensate for incompleteness. For the 2011 Census, an undercount of 14,6% was observed; the use of the aforementioned PES enabled adjustments to be made to compensate for this. This ensures complete coverage of the population enumerated in South Africa (including migrants).

[1] It is important to note that the population census enumerates all persons within the borders of SA, irrespective of their migratory status. The census migration module asks the province/country of birth, date moved to South Africa and country of citizenship. It does not ask the migratory status of an individual. It is not the mandate of Stats SA to determine whether a person born outside of SA is documented or not.

Figure 1: Perceptions of the number of foreign nationals living in South Africa

Source: South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) 2018

Based on data emanating from the Census, another key product from Stats SA is produced in the form of the mid-year population estimates. Estimating migration is quite complex in that movements are not universal, may or may not occur, and can occur repeatedly. But Stats SA has been able to estimate international migrant flows in the country. Stats SA experts estimate net immigration to be 852 992 people between 2016 and 2021 (Figure 2). Nearly half of all international migrants (47,8%) settle in Gauteng. Considered the country's economic hub, Gauteng also attracts many domestic migrants from provinces such as Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape (Figure 3). Despite attracting significant numbers of migrants, the average annual population growth for Gauteng was only 1,9% for the 2020–2021 period [2]. This can be compared to the 1,01% growth nationally for the same period.

[2] Gauteng is the province with the lowest total fertility rates. It, however, exhibits the highest population growth rate of all provinces due to migration.

Figure 2: Net International migration in South Africa 2001 - 2021

Figure 3: Net migration 2016-2021 Gauteng Province as a destination province

The United Nations Population Division estimated that in 2015, there were approximately 3,2 million foreign-born persons in SA and in 2019, this estimate had climbed to 4,2 million. Similar estimates have been produced by the KNOMAD unit from the World Bank. Using Census 2011 as well as the Mid-Year Population Estimates, Stats SA estimates that there were approximately 3,95 million foreign-born persons living in the country at the mid-point of 2021 [3].

[3] The United Nations Population Division estimated that in 2015, there were approximately 3,2 million foreign-born persons in SA and in 2019, this estimate had climbed to 4,2 million. Similar estimates have been produced by the KNOMAD unit from the World Bank. Using Census 2011 as well as the Mid-Year Population Estimates, Stats SA estimates that there were approximately 3,95 million foreign-born persons living in the country at the mid-point of 2021.

Irregular not illegal

There are erroneous suggestions that tens of millions of undocumented migrants reside in SA. It is not possible for Stats SA to identify the number of undocumented migrants living in the country [4]. However, demographic registration data clearly (and unequivocally) shows that assertions about millions of undocumented migrants living in the country are false. This is evident by the absence of a demographic footprint of the purported inflated size of the undocumented population.

Irregular migration is a global phenomenon prevalent in many countries across the world. It is worth mentioning that many undocumented people enter the country in a documented manner but are then unable to maintain this status. Planning needs to be made inclusive of this kind of immigration. This is a further reason why the population estimates made by Stats SA are invaluable.

[4] Official statistics are not concerned about individuals' migratory status because it violates people’s confidentiality. Due to the very nature of irregular migration, it is not possible to measure the extent of this phenomenon with much accuracy.

Foreign-born migrants and job creation

There is no evidence that international migrants are a major cause of unemployment in South Africa. An analysis of labour migration done by the World Bank in 2018 showed that for every employed migrant in South Africa, he/she creates two jobs for South Africans. A report published in 2019 by Stats SA revealed that international migrants are more likely to be employed than internal migrants and non-movers. However, the work that foreigners generally do does not conform to the Decent Work Framework of the International Labour Organization (ILO). In 11 of the sub-domains on this framework, international migrants’ score was worst in eight of them.

During the COVID-19 pandemic an investigation was conducted into the informal sector, which was impacted most by the government’s lockdown restrictions. This investigation showed that a higher proportion of those active in the informal sector were international migrants in all provinces except for Gauteng, Western Cape and Northern Cape. Many migrants working in the informal economy are very vulnerable. When asked about their workplace vulnerability, this group were more likely than non-migrants to have poor working conditions. About half (55,6%) had not made contributions to UIF and 40,5% had no employment contract. Of those with a contract, 41,3% had one with an unspecified duration. Given the current state of the economy, it is reasonable to assume that this type of vulnerability would continue beyond lockdown conditions and the end of the State of Disaster.

Table 1: Percentage of International migrants in selected sectors of the economy





Restaurants, bars and canteens - Shebeen



Hotels, camping sites and other provision of short stay accommodation



Building of complete constructions or parts thereof; civil engineering



Growing of crops - Growing of crops combined with farming of animals (mixed farm



One of the main talking points around international migration relates to the participation of foreigners in the labour market. Whether looking at the population and housing Census of 2011 or the labour migration modules in the Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS) of 2012 and 2017, foreign participation in the various sectors of the labour market is constant at a maximum of 10–12% per sector. An analysis of the 2012 and 2017 QLFS shows the participation by foreign-born persons in selected sectors of the economy in Table 1. There is no reason to suspect that this may have increased significantly since 2017.

Managing Migration

All spheres of government have a responsibility to manage migration with a human rights approach, which is enshrined in the National Development Plan and the South African Constitution. Local governments, in particular, need to understand and protect the rights of foreign nationals living in their jurisdictions. Most municipalities do acknowledge the importance of counting their populace to plan better for everyone within their jurisdiction. However, there is often a gross misalignment between services provided and the number of people actually residing within a municipality. This is principally due to the paucity of knowledge and/ or skills to translate demographic data, which lead to service delivery gaps and social cohesion issues.

In order to understand changes in their population composition, structure, and location, migration data is vital. Better understanding migration flows would assist local government officials recognize the contribution of internal and international migration to population change. In addition, it would help them profile migrants in their spaces to understand economic activities they are engaged in and develop economic and skills transfer programs to benefit their local population with observed migration patterns. This level of analysis is currently lacking within most municipal plans in SA, which partly contribute to an imbalance in short and long-term plans.

A new perspective

As we climb down from existing COVID-19 restrictions and its various impacts, we have an employment crisis with an official unemployment rate of close to 35%[5]. The COVID-19 pandemic has also resulted in population growth rates declining rapidly in all parts of the country, life expectancy losing three years of life and the number of annual deaths rising to levels last seen at the peak of the HIV-AIDS epidemic in 2006. The unemployment crisis has its origins prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and, unfortunately, the pandemic has just exposed existing problems in the labour market.

SA has many problems. But the data presented in this statement indicates that apportioning them to migrants would be wrong. It is imperative that we address the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic with sound evidence and that policies be implemented to address our challenges from this perspective. SA is a signatory to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration as well as the Global Compact for Refugees in 2018, two non-binding agreements which provide a blueprint for migration and refugee governance. It is our obligation, as a country to aspire to the objectives of these agreements, and to manage the opportunities that migration presents us from an evidence-based perspective.

[5] If we used the extended definition, the official level is even worse and approaches 50%.

Signed 7 April 2022

Diego Iturralde (Statistics SA)
Itani Ntsieni (Statistics SA)
Prof Mark Collinson (Wits School of Public Health and MRC, University of the Witwatersrand)
Nompumelelo Nzimande (University of KwaZulu-Natal)
Hangwelani Magidimisha (University of KwaZulu-Natal) Dr. Steven Gordon (Human Sciences Research Council) Ottilia Maunganidze (Institute for Security Studies)
Lizette Lancaster (Institute for Security Studies)
Godfrey Mulaudzi (Institute for Security Studies)
Jacques van Zuydam (Department of Social Development)
Prof Jonathan Crush (Balsillie School and University of Western Cape)
Dr Thabi Leoka (Economist) Prof. David Everatt (School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand)
Dr Sasha Frade (Department of Demography and Population Studies, University of the Witwatersrand)

For media enquiries please contact:
Diego Iturralde, Statistics SA, 0824132661
Jacques van Zuydam, Department of Social Development, 0833577774
Steven Gordon, Human Sciences Research Council, 0842449799