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FACTSHEET: How to talk about migration in South Africa

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The Covid-19 pandemic has brought many countries, and the movement of people, to a near standstill. As the world looks to restart, migration will again be at the fore, with South Africa likely to be a key part of this. 

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 counted. 

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 2021.”

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 countries:

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 consideration. 

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 completed.


  • 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 country. 


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

Source: Sonke Gender Justice and Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town 2019

Forced migration is a general and open-ended term that covers many kinds of displacement or involuntary movement, across borders or within a country, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

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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