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FACTSHEET: How many international migrants are there in SA?

This article is more than 7 years old

How many international migrants live in South Africa? According to this 2013 report published in the Christian Science Monitor, it depends on who you ask!

There are a number of official-sounding figures about the number of foreign-born migrants in the country, but many of them are exaggerated or based on unsound data – like this false claim, published last year by the New York Times and which was found to have been based on a fraudulent article published in a discredited social sciences journal.  

Censuses and surveys

Statistics South Africa (StatsSA) measures the number of people living in the country in its censuses every 10 years. These censuses include the numbers of foreign-born people (the questionnaire specifically asks about the respondent’s country of birth, which does not necessarily indicate citizenship or residency status). In between censuses, StatsSA conducts community surveys to provide insights on population dynamics.

The most recent data on demographics and migration was released in June 2016 as part of the 2016 Community Survey. According to the survey’s statistical release, as of March 2016 South Africa’s total population was approximately 55,7-million.

Among the questions in the community survey, respondents were asked in which province they had been born – this question had 11 response categories: nine South African provinces; “born outside” South Africa, representing foreign nationals; and a category for people who responded that they did not know where they had been born.

Immigration trends

In the 2016 survey, StatsSA explained that, since the onset of democracy, “[r]esearch has anecdotally reported more immigration numbers [migration into South Africa] relative to emigration [migration outwards]”.  

This assumption appeared to be borne out by the data from the three census reports that followed 1994, conducted in 1996, 2001, and 2011.

The 1996 census reported 958,188 foreign-born people in South Africa. By 2001 this figure had grown to 1,03-million. A decade later, Census 2011 showed the number of foreign-born migrants had more than doubled, to just over 2,1-million people.   

However according to the 2016 survey, South Africa’s foreign-born population has now declined to 1,6-million.

Diego Iturralde, chief director for demography at StatsSA, told Africa Check the decline was “unexpected” and that StatsSA was investigating “to see what may have informed this change”.

StatsSA suggests in the report that the decline could be as a result of foreign-born people lying about their nationalities, which may highlight an “instilled fear of disclosure of one’s origin”. The report also stated there was a need to investigate the enumerators’ capability to get correct answers on people’s countries of origin.

Other population models

The recorded number of foreign-born people in the 2016 Community Survey is also almost half the number of migrants estimated by the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). DESA estimates that, in 2015, there were over 3,14-million international migrants living in South Africa.

Pablo Lattes, a population affairs officer from DESA’s population division, told Africa Check via email that their estimates were based on the 2011 census figures, indicating  2,1-million international migrants. To this they added a rounded-up figure of 600,000 asylum seekers and refugees – based on 2015 UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] data – which then “puts the total foreign born around 2,7-million. The number of foreign born has been steadily growing in South Africa,” Lattes added, “so we consider our estimate of 3,1-million to be a very likely estimate for the country.

“The UN [estimate] is based on a model with a series of assumptions which in the past has tied up nicely with our data but this time round we seem to have diverged in our numbers,” said Iturralde.

DESA’s report states that in 2000 there were just over 1-million international migrants in South Africa, or 2.25% of the population. This figure ties in with previous numbers released by StatsSA, which found, in the 1996 and 2001 censuses, and the 2007 community survey, respectively, “2.1%, 2.2% and 2.3% of the enumerated population”, were foreign born. The 2011 census was the first survey to estimate a significantly larger proportion of international migrants, at 4.2% of the country’s population (confusingly, some older StatsSA reports incorrectly cite this proportion as 5.7%).

The 2016 community survey figure of 1,6-million foreign-born migrants would represent 2.8% of South Africa’s population, which is in line with previous survey years. Iturralde confirms that although the community surveys in 2007 and 2016 were nine years apart, they both found similar proportions of foreign-born people.

international migrants in south africa

If the DESA figures are to be believed, however, the proportion of international migrants living in South Africa would be more than double that – at around 5.8% of the population.  

Susan Ziehl, an independent researcher with expertise in migration, demography and research methods, says that she believes the community survey (rather than the census) provides a more accurate picture.

“Because the census counts the whole country, there would be mistakes, while a sample survey might be more accurate because it is a smaller undertaking,” she said, adding “we actually don’t know what the actual level of migration; we have different figures. We still need to do research to get an idea of the actual level of migration.”

It is unclear, at this stage, whether the discrepancies between these models and surveys cast doubt on all of them, or only on on specific data sets. “What is important, from a reporting point of view,” says Africa Check’s head of research, Nechama Brodie, “is that researchers and especially reporters are careful and transparent about which sources, and which years, they are using when covering stories on migration, or when making calculations about migrants.”

Gender and age of migrants

Both the 2016 Community Survey and Census 2011 found that there are more male than female migrants in South Africa – a 60:40 ratio – and that most migrants were of working age (between the ages of 15 and 64 years old).
  Male Female Total
Census 2011 1,311,280 (60%) 877,592 2,188,872
Community Survey 2016 918,040 (58%) 660,501 1,578,541
Edited by Laura Grant, Tanya Pampalone and Nechama Brodie

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