from Africa in Transition

Misconceptions About Cross Border Migration in South Africa

February 20, 2013

Blog Post

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Refugees and Displaced Persons

South Africa


Immigration and Migration

South Africans often assume that since the end of apartheid, and the coming of democracy in 1994, there has been a huge wave of migration into South Africa from the rest of the continent. Stories abound of entire Johannesburg neighborhoods that are now Nigerian or Congolese–and that immigrants have taken over certain crime syndicates. There have been xenophobic riots against Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa who, with the benefit of higher education standards in their home country, are seen by township dwellers as competition for scarce jobs.

The Human Sciences Research Council withdrew its earlier estimate that there are four to eight million undocumented migrants in South Africa. Those numbers nonetheless still make their way into the press—and the public consciousness. Statistics South Africa estimates undocumented persons in South Africa to be in the range of five hundred thousand to one million.

The South African Department of Home Affairs recently released administrative statistics for 2008/9 that tend to dissolve the myth of a wave of migration. Also, using other demographic data, the Forced Migration Studies Program (FMSP) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg has produced the following statistics.

Between 1994 and 2009, the cumulative total of recognized refugees migrating to South Africa was 47,596.

In 2009, there were 223,324 new applicants for refugee status. Of those, 4,567 were approved and 46,055 rejected—more than ten times the number approved. In addition, 172,702 were added to the backlog of pending cases.

In 2007/8 individual work permits were issued to 32,344 economic immigrants.

In the same year, 312,733 were deported.

FMSP’s bottom line is that the overall foreign population ranges from 1.6 to 2 million, or 3-4 percent of the total population. It also estimates that there are between 1 and 1.5 million legal and illegal Zimbabwean immigrants in South Africa.

Because of its stability, highly developed infrastructure and first-world amenities, many elites from Nigeria, Congo, and other African countries travel to South Africa, and the wealthiest often have houses there. They are a population of high visibility. So too are the receptionists and others, born in Zimbabwe, who deal with the public. But, South Africa has a total population of more than fifty million, and the numbers of high profile migrants are relatively small. The FMSP data seems to indicate that most of South Africa’s cross border migrants are from Zimbabwe, and not further afield.

For sake of comparison, the Center for Migration Studies just published its conclusion that 3.7 percent of the U.S. population is undocumented migrants, while 7.9 percent is documented migrants. Together they make up approximately 11 percent of the total U.S. population. Both South Africa and the United States are historically countries that welcome immigration. But, the percentages are far greater in the United States than in South Africa.