How many immigrants live in South Africa?

The UN and South Africa's Statistics Service are exaggerating immigrant numbers and playing with people's lives in South Africa.

Downtown Johannesburg. Image credit Kim Davies via Flickr.

The number of immigrants living in South Africa has been hotly contested for many years. Perceptions among the general public of immigrants “flooding” into the country, taking jobs and resources resulted in horrific attacks against African migrants in 2008. When the carnage came to an end, more than 60 people lay dead. Since then, the country has seen other smaller outbreaks of xenophobic violence.

In an article about xenophobic attacks on foreigners published in 2015, the New York Times claimed South Africa was home to five million immigrants. Reuters used the same figure. BBC wrote that there are between two and five million immigrants in the country. Where did the five million figure come from? It turns out the media referenced a plagiarized article published in a journal that does not meet academic quality standards, as pointed out by Africa Check. In academic circles such publications are known as predatory journals that publish anything for a price.

The South African 2011 Census found that there were 2.2 million immigrants in a country of 52 million in 2011. While it is possible that some undocumented migrants were not counted in the 2011 Census, this was corrected for by Stats SA in the final figure using the weighting factor that adjusts for possible undercount. Thus, the 2011 Census figure of 2.2 million foreign-born people in South Africa is supposed to include both documented and undocumented foreigners.

These remain the only official and credible numbers. Other figures, such as the ones used by the international media in 2015, are grossly exaggerated and not supported by any credible research or data.

In South Africa, where xenophobia is rife and violence against foreigners has taken many lives over the years—”such exaggerations are extremely dangerous, since they give credence to the belief that South Africa is overrun by foreigners who are stealing local jobs and putting a strain on services,” as Liesl Louw-Vaudran from the Institute for Security Studies wrote in 2015.

But the dangerous, irresponsible and unsubstantiated estimates and guesswork are back. And this time, these are the work of the United Nations and its agencies.

According to the Migration Data Portal run by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in 2017, South Africa was home to four million immigrants. This estimate is based on the work of the Population Division of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). UNDESA is suggesting the number of immigrants in South Africa has doubled between 2010 and 2017.

Given the widely acknowledged volatility of issues related to migration, it comes as a surprise that the new United Nations statistics seem to be founded on bad statistical methods and sloppy analysis. In any other context this might be overlooked as a matter only of interest to policy wonks. In South Africa, the issue has life and death implications.

The claims by UNDESA are all the more remarkable when put in perspective. Ethiopia and Uganda have seen similar dramatic increases in the same period due to a large movement of refugees from South Sudan and other conflict-ridden countries in the region. Another country that has seen a massive increase of refugees between 2011-2017 is Turkey. Again, this makes sense in light of the ongoing war in neighboring Syria which has forced millions of people to leave their homes.

It is highly unlikely that South Africa, with no war raging next door, has doubled the immigrant population since the last time statistics were collected in 2011. And while economic migrants make up a large part of the immigrant population, there is no reason why the numbers would have increased so dramatically in such a short period of time.

When asked to explain the 2017 estimates, UNDESA pointed out that they added 1.1 million refugees and asylum seekers hosted in the country in 2016 to the 2011 Census figure of 2.2 million foreign-born individuals living in South Africa. They also added some 800,000 new immigrants since 2011, coming up with the estimate of over four million immigrants in 2017.

Loren Landau, a leading migration expert from the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, notes that while it is likely that the number of immigrants in South Africa has grown since 2011 in line with the population growth, there is no reason to inflate it to four million as UNDESA has done. Landau said that adding more than a million asylum seekers on top of the 2.2 million immigrants counted in the 2011 Census is nothing but bogus. He added that “those are the number of applicants over a decade. There is no good reason to think they reflect a million people still in the country who have not already been counted.” A recent report on migration in South Africa by the World Bank confirms that asylum seekers and refugees are “covered by the population census as any other international migrant.”

Africa Check examined the above-mentioned claim referenced by UNDESA that South Africa was a host to 1.1 million asylum seekers in 2016 and found that the figure was “based on a flawed reading of the available data” and incorrect. Still, this did not stop the UN and its various agencies from releasing the flawed figures.

Another discrepancy in the UNDESA 2017 estimate is the origin of immigrants in South Africa. In the 2018 report on migration for structural transformation in Africa, the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development presents a breakdown of the immigrant population in South Africa in 2017. The report claims that about 2.2 immigrants in South Africa are from the African continent and some 1.8 million from outside Africa, based on the data from UNDESA.

According to the 2011 Census, 75% of immigrants in South Africa are from the African continent, with the remaining immigrant population from outside Africa estimated to be about 520,000. UNDESA’s claim that the number of immigrants from outside Africa grew more than three times in a few years is not supported by any evidence.

There is no question that South Africa remains an attractive destination for immigrants, primarily from the region and the African continent, and that there has been a significant influx of migrants and asylum seekers over the past few years. However, it is highly questionable that the number of immigrants has doubled since 2011.

Instead of questioning UNDESA’s figures, South Africa’s statistician-general, Risenga Maluleke, wrote in a recent piece in Africa Check that Stats SA “estimates that there are approximately 4 million foreign-born people in South Africa at this point in time.” Maluleke offers no data or evidence to substantiate this figure.

A basic calculation, using the Stats SA’s own publicly available up-to-date figures, shows that this is wrong. The Census 2011 found that there were 2.2 million foreign-born people in South Africa in 2011. If we add a million people who are estimated by Stats SA to have immigrated between 2011-2016, minus about 400,000 foreigners deported from the country by the Department of Home Affairs during the same time period, we get about 2.8 million immigrants in South Africa in 2016. This number is likely to have grown a bit since 2016, but nowhere near 4 million.

For whatever reason, Maluleke and Stats SA have decided to accept the UN figures without questioning the claim of a dramatic doubling of South African immigration numbers since 2011. Even more troubling is the fact that Stats SA does not seem to trust its own hard work, estimates and figures about international migration.

With the national polls slated for 2019, anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric and hate-mongering are on the increase as the electioneering heats up. South African political parties are already outdoing each other by trying to mobilize voters based on their and voters’ xenophobia. UNDESA’s baseless claim that the number of immigrants has doubled in South Africa since 2011 can only fuel already existing anti-immigrant sentiments.

Foreigners are blamed for almost every social ill and problem in South Africa. Both the government and the main opposition party want to build higher fences at the border to prevent foreigners from coming in and undermining South Africa’s security and prosperity. Politicians claim that foreigners are the main reason for high crime rates; immigrants are blamed for the hardships experienced by millions of poor South Africans and for overrunning and taking over South Africa’s cities.

Never mind that the research shows that immigrants do not steal jobs from South Africans, or that foreigners are not responsible for high levels of crime. Instead of looking at the facts and having to explain their own failures to improve the lives of millions of South Africans who remain trapped in extreme poverty, the politicians keep reverting to the anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The best way to address this is through honest and factual reporting of data. Despite its possible shortcomings, imprecision and methodological challenges, the country’s 2011 Census and the follow-up population estimates remain the only sources of credible data about the South African population, including the number of immigrants in the country.

Population and immigration numbers matter. Facts matter. Wild and unsubstantiated figures have no place in national or international documents or media reports. Not only because they are not based on any sound evidence but also because exaggerations are dangerous.

Circulating unsupported claims that South Africa has experienced a dramatic doubling of its immigrant population in only a few years suggests the county has been overrun by foreigners. This can fuel xenophobia and may lead to violence. South Africa has been down this road before. Knowing this, the UN—and Stats SA—must do better.

Further Reading