News Articles

How to talk about migration in South Africa

Source: Africacheck, 18/05/2020

Immigrants and refugees have often sought better opportunities in
the country. Similarly, many South Africans have emigrated to
other parts of the world, in search of greener pastures.
The terms used to describe this migration overlap but are not
entirely synonymous. International migration law has given us some
common denominators, but how these terms are defined and used in
practice differs from country to country.
In order to accurately report on the causes and patterns of
migration to and from South Africa, it’s important to understand
migration terms and when to use them.
Who is a migrant?
There is no universally accepted definition of a migrant.
According to the International Organization for Migration, a
migrant can be defined as “a person who moves away from his or her
place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an
international border, temporarily or permanently, and for a
variety of reasons”.
So “migrant” is an umbrella term, encompassing a number of groups
of persons who may have different legal statuses.
1. Domestic migrant
When we talk about migration, we tend to focus on international
migration. But the vast majority of migration in South Africa
happens within its borders. Domestic migration, also known as
internal migration, is the result of South Africans moving from
one province or municipality to another.
Domestic migration also includes the circular migration of South
Africans who work in one part of the country and maintain a
residence in another.
Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the country’s national data
agency, measures domestic migration by asking survey respondents
which province they were born in. This provides domestic migration
data at a provincial level but does not tell us much about
migration between cities.
South Africa’s Gauteng province receives the largest number and
proportion of domestic migrants. Stats SA’s 2016 community survey
shows that there were 13,381,004 people living in Gauteng, while
only 8,648,974 (65%) were born in the province.
2. International migrant
Migration across an international border can be understood as
emigration and immigration.
• Emigration
Emigrant refers to a person leaving a country. (Tip: ‘e’ for
exit.) Emigration is the act of moving from your country of
nationality or usual residence to another country that then
becomes your new country of residence.
Stats SA’s most recent data on emigrants comes from the 2016
community survey. Measuring emigration is difficult because many
people leaving don’t declare their departure to authorities.
The survey estimated that 97,460 South Africans emigrated between
2006 and 2016. The top three destinations were Mozambique,
Zimbabwe and Australia.
But it’s highly possible that this was an undercount. It only
included people who still had family in South Africa, who could
confirm the emigration. If a whole family emigrated, they were not
The United Nations population division estimated that there were
840,000 South Africans living outside the country in mid-2015.
• Immigration
Immigrant refers to a person entering a country. (Tip: ‘i’ for
in.) Immigration is the act of moving into a country other than
the country of your nationality or usual residence. The country of
destination then becomes your new country of residence.
Working out how many foreign-born people live in South Africa can
be difficult.
South Africa’s most recent census is from 2011 and showed that
approximately 2.2 million foreign-born people were living in South
Africa. But Stats SA’s 2016 community survey estimate was much
lower, putting the number at around 1.6 million.
The agency has acknowledged that the decrease was unusual and
investigated the drop. “A few issues were at play,” Diego
Iturralde, executive manager of demography at Stats SA, told
Africa Check.
First, the timing of the 2016 community survey coincided with the
Easter weekend when it is common for South Africans to travel from
their homes. This may have led to confusion and non-responses to
questions about where people could be found and where they should
have been counted.
Second, there was confusion around the definition of a household
member, with the result that one definition may have been used in
the 2011 census and another in the 2016 community survey.
Third, in the aftermath of xenophobic violence in the country in
2015, there may have been a reluctance to respond to questions
about place of birth and about migration in general.
Using 2019 mid-year population estimates, Stats SA estimates the
number of foreign-born people living in South Africa is around 3.6
million, Iturralde told Africa Check. “This is inclusive of all
categories of migrants.”
Is migration data ‘too old’?
South Africa’s last census was in 2011, with the next scheduled
for 2021. The latest large-scale community survey is now four
years old. Can we still rely on the figures?
“Census data is somewhat old and plenty has changed since then,”
Diego Iturralde of Stats SA said. “However, we do provide
migration outputs in the mid-year estimates for the period 2016 to
The absence of fresh data can lead to the spread of
misinformation, he said. That is why Stats SA is adding migration
modules to their annual surveys, which focus on describing
migration dynamics and characteristics rather than numbers.
For example, undocumented migration is one of the issues that
generates the most publicity . Stats SA says it is in regular
contact with the Department of Home Affairs to better understand
their processes. But estimating the number of undocumented
migrants is still very complex, Iturralde said.
But it would be possible, however, to identify significant
changes. “An influx of undocumented migrants, or of any other
type, would leave behind a demographic footprint. You would see a
surge of deaths and of births to female migrants in the relevant
age groups and in the regions where migrants are found.”
Migration can be temporary or permanent
1. Temporary resident
A temporary resident is allowed to legally stay in South Africa
for longer than 90 days. Visas are issued to foreigners who would
like to invest in South Africa, who have skills that are seen as
critical, and who would like to study at a South African learning
institution, among other reasons.
South Africa’s home affairs department provides different types
of temporary residence visas. These include business, study and
medical treatment visas.
The most recent Stats SA publication on documented immigrants is
from 2015. It shows that 67% of the 75,076 temporary residence
permits issued that year were to citizens from the following 10
Country Number %
Nigeria 10,334 13.8
Zimbabwe 9,798 13.1
India 7,154 9.5
Bangladesh 5,129 6.8
Pakistan 5,087 6.8
China 3,997 5.3
United Kingdom 2,861 3.8
Democratic Republic of the Congo 2,575 3.4
Germany 1,931 2.6
Angola 1,647 2.2
Source: Statistics South Africa 2015
2. Permanent resident
Migrants can apply for permanent residence if they have been
living in South Africa with a work permit for five years, if they
intend to establish a business in the country, or if they are
financially independent, among other qualifiers.
According to section 25 of the Immigration Act of 2002, permanent
residents enjoy the same rights as South Africans, except rights
restricted to citizens by the constitution. For example, a
permanent resident cannot vote and can be deported if they commit
a crime.
In 2015, 6,397 permanent residence permits were issued. The
majority were issued to citizens from Zimbabwe (33.6%), India
(9.7%), China (9.2%), Nigeria (5.5%), Democratic Republic of the
Congo (5.1%), the United Kingdom (4%), Pakistan (3.5%), Ghana
(2%), Germany (1.8%) and Lesotho (1.7%).
Permanent residents can also become citizens if they meet the
criteria in the Citizenship Act of 1995.
Undocumented and irregular migrants
What about migrants who do not have a temporary or permanent
residence permit?
These migrants are often referred to as “undocumented” or
“irregular” because they may not have legal permission to be in
the country or may have overstayed their legal right to remain in
the country.
Some international bodies, like the United Nations Refugee Agency,
caution against using the terms “illegal” immigrant or “alien”.
They argue that a person cannot be illegal ` they are simply not
documented in terms of the country’s immigration laws.
Undocumented migrants may be unwilling to participate in official
surveys, and are possibly less likely to answer honestly, or
respond to all questions when they do participate, senior
migration expert Dr Sally Peberdy previously told Africa Check.
South Africa’s census does not ask about the documented status of
an individual. Instead it asks for a person’s province or country
of birth, the date that they moved to South Africa, and their
country of citizenship.
According to Risenga Maluleke, South Africa’s statistician
general, it is not Stats SA’s mandate to determine whether people
born outside of South Africa are documented or not.
Refugees and asylum seekers
Challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa
often make headlines. But what do these terms mean and what is the
difference between the two?
• Asylum seeker
South Africa defines an asylum seeker as a person who has fled
their country of origin, is seeking recognition and protection as
a refugee in South Africa, and whose application is still under
Not every asylum seeker will be recognised as a refugee but every
recognised refugee was initially an asylum seeker. If an
application is unsuccessful, the asylum seeker must leave the
country voluntarily or face deportation.
In response to a parliamentary question in 2019, home affairs
minister Aaron Motsoaledi said that 18,104 requests for asylum
were processed by his department in 2018. As of 31 December 2018,
there were 3,534 cases still to be processed.
An eligible asylum seeker receives a permit which legalises their
stay in South Africa. The permit is valid for six months but can
be extended by a further six months if their application is still
being considered.
This permit allows the asylum seeker to work and study in South
Africa, and protects them from deportation. Asylum seekers must
remain in the country until their adjudication process is
• Refugee
South Africa’s home affairs department defines a refugee as a
person who has been granted asylum status and protection, in terms
of section 24 of the Refugee Act of 1998. The Refugee Act was
amended in 2017, but no changes were made to this definition.
South Africa is a signatory of the 1951 Convention Relating to the
Status of Refugees. It therefore has a legal obligation to protect
refugees who are unable or unwilling to return to their home
country because of well-founded fears of persecution for reasons
of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or a membership
in a particular social group.
Under the same convention, a refugee can also be a person in need
of protection whose removal to their home country would subject
them to threats to their life or freedom.
In 2015, the latest year for which data is available, 204 refugee
permits were issued in South Africa: 123 to men and 81 to women.
The highest proportion of refugees came from East and Central
Africa (9.3%), followed by the Southern African Development
Community (5.7%).
Recognised refugees are issued with an identity document. They may
study and work in South Africa and travel freely outside the
Migration occurs for a variety of reasons
Migration involves cross-border and internal movement, neither of
which can be assumed to be voluntary. Therefore, another way we
can understand migration is by looking at the different reasons
why people migrate.
According to Loren Landau, professor at the African Centre for
Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand,
migrants to South Africa are looking for work, seeking protection,
or hoping to proceed to other countries.
“We often speak about three motivations: passage, profit and
protection. For some it is a stepping stone to get elsewhere, for
others it is a place to work or prepare for life; that is, to
study and learn skills. Still others hope to escape conflict or
persecution. Often it is some combination,” Landau previously told
Africa Check.
The reasons for migration can also be categorised into push and
pull factors. Push factors are reasons why people leave an area
and pull factors are reasons why people want to move to an area.
A person could migrate for one or more of these push and pull
factors. The reasons for migration are complex and often overlap,
so the terminology around this is less definitive.
Push factors Pull factors
War Access to employment
Lack of employment Better living conditions
Natural disasters Respect for human rights
Human rights abuses Access to education
Climate change Access to healthcare
Violence Good climate
Socio-economic conditions Political stability
Political conditions To reunite with family
Human-made disasters Safety
Lack of basic services To be with who they love
The term has been used to refer to people who were displaced due
to environmental disasters, conflict and famine. But “forced
migration” is not a legal concept and it has no universally
accepted definition.


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