Do 5 million immigrants live in South Africa? New York Times inflates number

Comments 4

After the recent outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa The New York Times wrote that 5 million immigrants call South Africa home. Available data suggests that this is an exaggeration.

Following the release of this report we wrote to The New York Times to seek a correction. The paper replied saying that they were “confident that no correction is required”. In support of their claim they provided a journal article which, they said, summarised the various estimates of the immigrants population in South Africa. Africa Check found that the journal article was plagiarised and from a de-accredited journal. The figures it contained were unsubstantiated media estimates. You can read the follow-up report here.

How many immigrants live in South Africa? The numbers used in news reports written in the wake of the recent series of brutal attacks on foreigners in the country varied widely.

The BBC said: “Official data suggests there are about two million foreign nationals in South Africa” but that “some estimates put the number of immigrants at five million”.

The New York Times stated this number as fact. “With Africa’s most advanced economy, South Africa is home to about five million immigrants,” it said in an article on the xenophobic attacks.

So where does this number come from? Is it backed up by research?

No response when asked for source

Hundreds of foreign nationals queue to register with South African Home Affairs officials to go back to Zimbabwe. Photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP
Hundreds of Zimbabweans queue to register with South African Home Affairs officials to go back home in April 2015. Photo: Rajesh Jantilal/AFP

Africa Check emailed the journalist who wrote the article to ask for his source but have yet to receive a response. An email via The New York Times website also went unanswered.

With no response from The New York Times, our next stop was Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the official statistics agency. Demographic analysis manager, Diego Iturralde, said that “the numbers quoted by The New York Times are way off the mark and it would be interesting to see the source [of] their claim”.

Former director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, Loren Landau, agreed: “As far as I know, this is completely untrue,” he told Africa Check.

Only 2.2 million immigrants according to census

When we asked what is the real figure, both Iturralde and Landau directed us to South Africa’s last census for the best available data.

The 2011 census found that there were 2,199,871 people living in South Africa who were born outside the country. They made up 4.2% of the population – which then stood at 51,770,560. Seventy-one percent of those born outside of South Africa were African.

Some of the immigrants acquired citizenship since their arrival and therefore the number of non-citizens resident in South Africa is lower. According to the census 1,692,242 people – or 3.3% of South Africa’s population then – were not citizens in 2011.

Similar figures were recorded the year following the census in the 2012 General Household Survey.

Immigrant population unlikely to have doubled

Iturralde said that there wasn’t any more recent data available on the size of the immigrant population in South Africa but that the numbers were unlikely to have changed significantly since 2011.

“The nature of global migration is that it doesn’t change much at a country level from year to year… there is no reason to suggest that it has increased dramatically,” he said.

Landau told Africa Check that it was “highly unlikely” that the immigrant population would have more than doubled from 2.2 million in 2011 to 5 million in 2015.

What about undocumented immigrants?

In April 2015 leaders from faith based organisations, trade unions, NGOs and corporate South Africa took part in a march in Johannesburg against attacks on foreign nationals. Photo: GCIS
In April 2015 leaders from faith based organisations, trade unions, NGOs and corporate South Africa took part in an anti-xenophobia march in Johannesburg. Photo: GCIS

So how accurate are these numbers? South Africa’s census is, of course, designed to count every person in South Africa – including both documented and undocumented immigrants. Both Landau and Iturralde told Africa Check they believe that the vast majority of immigrants would have been recorded in the last such poll.

Landau has previously told Africa Check that, while the census would have undercounted some undocumented immigrants, he had “never seen any justification for a particular, higher figure”.

According to Iturralde, “some undocumented migrants may have avoided the census enumerators for fear of their personal data being passed onto the authorities”. But he said this would have been accounted for during the Post Enumeration Survey.

This survey is used to determine the extent of an undercount or overcount. The survey is conducted immediately after the census to evaluate the quality of census data and provides a statistical basis for adjusting census data.

Conclusion: The New York Times exaggerates immigrant numbers

The statement that “South Africa is home to about five million immigrants”, published in The New York Times and referred to by the BBC, is not backed up by the best available research.

South Africa’s 2011 census, which provides the most recent official figures, found that that there were about 2.2 million immigrants in the country. Some undocumented migrants would have evaded the census but not the almost three million required to reach the five million figure.

The analysts of population movement in southern Africa that we spoke with said it was highly unlikely that the immigrant population would have doubled in the four years since that last poll was done.

Editing by Anim van Wyk & Peter Cunliffe-Jones

Further reading:

Are there 70-million people in South Africa? The claim is unsubstantiated

ANALYSIS: Are foreigners stealing jobs in South Africa?

How many Zimbabweans live in South Africa? The numbers are unreliable

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Comment on this report

Comments 4
  1. By Mbongiseni

    South Africa doesn’t have a specific tool to measure the number of Illegal foreigners coming in since no tight security to their borders I therefore see all information provided here illegit.

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  2. By Debo Mswati

    To rely on a 2011 census to estimate to number of people who are in the country as legal and illegal immigrants in 2019 is really dodgy to say the least. A lot has happened in Sub-saharan Africa in the past 8 years as well as the fact that South Africa has since been attracting economic immigrants from the Middle East, South East Asia and China. I am of the view that there’s been waves of asylum and economic immigrants coming into the country since 2011, due to poor political and economic situations in some Sub-saharan African countries-my estimate is closer to the 5 million (or at least 3-4 million)…what we should be discussing is how SA can work with the destabilized countries to manage this situation, to see what can be done internally to mitigate the social and economic impact resulting from increased numbers of undocumented immigrants…including getting communities onboard in promoting a peaceful management of this situation, not the least safety for communities, security for the country, increased law and order by having effective policing and documenting people who are in the country illegally-documenting does not mean offer of citizenship but some legal identity with its own regime.

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  3. By KB1000

    2.2 illegal immigrants in 2011. So are we to assume illegal immigration sopped. Or don’t we count the 35000 a day from Zimbabwe just between January 2020 and March 2020. ANy chance of caluculating the number for intervening years???? ANd your saying the report which based its figures on a Institute for Security Studies is discredited doesn’t make it discredited. It just means you said so

    Reply Report comment

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