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International Migration in South Africa Trends, Policy, and Xenophobia

Jean Pierre Misago

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South Africa is the main destination country for migrants in Africa. But its rights-based approach to immigration management has increasingly been replaced by a restrictive stance.

A peace march against xenophobia takes place in Durban, South Africa, Thursday, April 15, 2015. (© picture-alliance/AP, Thuli Dlamini)

This paper discusses international migration in South Africa focusing on trends, policy and approach to migration management as well as public perceptions of migrants in the country. It indicates that,

  1. due to its perceived economic prosperity and relative political stability, South Africa is the content’s unrivalled major destination for international migrants;

  2. the country’s rights-based policies and approach to migration management are increasingly being replaced by a securitisation perspective with detrimental effects for migrants; and

  3. public perceptions of migrants in South Africa are characterized by negative attitudes, resentment and xenophobia whose violent manifestation (xenophobic violence) increasingly threatens migrants’ lives and livelihoods.

International migration trends in South Africa

South Africa has a long history of international migration dating back to the colonial era (South Africa was first colonized by the Netherlands in the mid-17th century and later by Great Britain) with an influx of European settlers in the 19th century and labour migration that followed the discovery of diamonds and gold in the country. During that period, international labour migrants included mineral prospectors from Europe and mine workers from the region and China. International migration during apartheid – from 1948 to 1992, South Africa had an official policy of racial segregation – was shaped by a system known as ‘two-gate policy’ consisting of i) a ‘front-gate’ through which, White migrants considered desirable were allowed access, and ii) a ‘back-gate’ “with a double function, on the one hand preventing unwanted [Black] migrants from entering and on the other, letting in, but only on a temporary basis, cheap and docile labour”. The back-gate policy was in line with apartheid government policies restricting the movement of Black South Africans outside of the designated areas known as ‘homelands’.

Post-apartheid South Africa has experienced a significant rise in mixed and irregular migration consisting mainly of labour/economic migration and displacement. Indeed, due to its perceived economic prosperity and relative political stability, post-apartheid South Africa has become a preferred destination for increasing numbers of international migrants seeking a better socio-economic future (economic migrants) but also protection from violent conflicts or political persecution in the region, continent and beyond (refugees and asylum seekers).

South Africa is currently Africa’s migration hub or the ‘continent’s top migration destination’ as it hosts the highest number of international migrants on the continent. In 2019 for example, South Africa was host to 4.2 million international migrants, 1.7 million more than the following Cote d’Ivoire with 2.5 million. In mid-2021, Statistics South Africa estimated that 3.95 million foreign-born persons were living in the country. However, numbers are mere estimates. Up-to-date census data is not available and no one knows exactly how many migrants are living in the country irregularly.

Results of the 2011 national census show that, in 2011, African migrants made up the majority (75.3 per cent) of South Africa’s international migrants, followed by migrants from Europe (8.2 per cent) and Asia (4.7 per cent). Among the African migrants, citizens from Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries made up 68 per cent with Zimbabwe contributing 45 per cent of all SADC immigrants in South Africa. In 2020, the majority of international migrants in South Africa were Zimbabweans, followed by Mozambicans, Lesotho citizens and Malawians. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), women made up 43.1 per cent of the total number of international migrants in South Africa, while 11.1 per cent were children (younger than 19 years) and 7.1 per cent old people (older than 65 years) in 2020.

International migration numbers discussed above include refugees and asylum seekers. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), South Africa was home to 66,596 refugees and 84,316 asylum seekers in 2022. The main countries of origin of refugees and asylum-seekers include Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and Burundi.

Besides being an attractive country of destination, South Africa is also a country of origin for international migrants. According to UN DESA, the number of South African-born people living outside the country stood at roughly 915,000 in 2020. Most of these emigrants lived in the United Kingdom (around 247,000), and Australia (nearly 200,000). Other important destination countries include the United States of America, New Zealand, Canada, and Germany. Among the main reasons for emigration are the search for work and socio-economic prosperity as well as the wish to live in a more peaceful and secure environment.

South Africa’s migration policy and approach to migration management

Migration policy in South Africa has evolved in service of two mutually re-enforcing objectives: national security and socio-economic development. There are two key legislations that have defined migration policy in post-apartheid South Africa: Refugees Act 130 of 1998, and Immigration Act 13 of 2002. These two legislations were largely informed by a human rights-based perspective, as explained below.

Through the adoption of the Refugees Act (RA) in 1998, South African migration policy, for the first time, made specific provisions for the entry and regularization of refugees and asylum seekers in the country. In line with the rights-based and inclusive 1996 Constitution, the Refugees Act was praised as progressive because of the protection and rights it provided for refugees and asylum seekers. These rights included freedom of movement, access to basic services (such as primary health care, social welfare), and the right to work and study.

Similarly, the Immigration Act 13 of 2002 (whose objective is to offer a safe, secure and beneficial migration governance, through proper management of the admission, residence and departure of immigrants) is also human rights-based. According to Section 2 (1)(a) of the Act, the Department of Home Affairs is tasked with “promoting a human rights-based culture in both government and civil society in respect of immigration control.”

Analysts and observers note that the rights-based approach to migration management is recently increasingly being replaced by a securitisation perspective through which the state views migration as a threat to national security and to the citizens’ socio-economic prosperity. The South African Human Rights Commission for example observes that, over the years, South Africa has made a series of amendments to its Immigration and Refugees Acts that signalled the shift towards the securitisation of migration. This shift in policy and practice has resulted in stricter border control, stricter access to both the immigration system and the asylum process, and it has increasingly limited migrants’ access to the protection and rights that were previously available to them. Many view South Africa’s increasing securitisation of migration as not aligning with – or even violating – its Constitution and obligations under international law.

Public perceptions of migrants in South Africa: negative attitudes and xenophobia

In South Africa, research consistently documents strong negative and xenophobic attitudes, resentment and hostility towards refugees and immigrants among the general public, government officials and institutions of authority. Research shows that these attitudes are widespread and cut across race, class, gender, age, ethnic and religious divides. Research provides strong evidence that South Africans are generally uncomfortable with the presence of immigrants, particularly African and Asian non-nationals in the country. For example, a 2020 study reveals that the majority (57 per cent) of the South African population hold negative attitudes towards refugees and immigrants residing in the country. Immigrants (particularly the poor amongst them) are generally perceived as a serious threat to citizens’ lives and livelihoods and are consequently often met with discrimination, hostility and/or violent exclusion by local communities and institutions.

Xenophobic attitudes result from – and are in turn reinforced by – constant scapegoating by the public, government officials and political leaders, who, without any empirical evidence, blame foreign nationals for service delivery failures, and make them responsible for most of the country’s socio-economic ills including high rates of poverty, unemployment and crime; diseases; drugs, prostitution and moral degeneration, depletion of social services; and ‘stealing’ – or ‘illegitimate’ competition for – jobs, business opportunities and even women. Once relegated to local streets, xenophobic populism and anti-migrant mobilisation have now moved to national mainstream politics. They are used by political parties (old and new) as profitable political tools to attract votes or explain away service delivery failures.

In South Africa, xenophobia manifests in various ways at both institutional and public level. Institutional xenophobia is for example visible through denying immigrants access to services to which they are legally entitled; selective enforcement of laws; harassment, intimidation and extortion by state agents particularly the police and immigration officials; unlawful detentions and deportations, and vilifying pronouncements by government officials. Public manifestations include everyday street-level abuse; discriminatory stereotyping and dehumanizing remarks, extortion by local gangs; threats; evictions from residences and business premises; and collective violence commonly known as xenophobic violence. According to a 2018 study, “More than one in ten adults living in South Africa reported […] that they had not taken part in violent action against foreign nationals – but would be prepared to do so. […] The results of this study show that millions of ordinary South Africans are prepared to engage in anti-immigrant behaviour”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, xenophobic violence is the most visible and the most dangerous manifestation of xenophobia in South Africa. This type of violence has become a longstanding feature in post-apartheid South Africa. Since 1994, tens of thousands of people have been harassed, attacked, or killed because of their status as outsiders or foreign nationals. Its main characteristics include murder, assaults, looting, robbery, arson attacks, and mass displacement. While Asian immigrants are also occasionally affected, African immigrants living in poor and often generally violent urban areas are disproportionately targeted by xenophobic attitudes and behaviour in South Africa. This has led many analysts to label South Africa’s xenophobia as ‘Afrophobia’.

Research evidence indicates that xenophobic violence in South Africa is caused by a complex interplay between (a) underlying conditions, (b) proximate causes and (c) precipitants and triggers. Underlying conditions include socio-economic deprivation, history of group conflict and violence, and xenophobia. Analysts argue that, while rooted in segregation and discriminatory policies and practices of the apartheid regime, these underlying conditions are exacerbated by the post-apartheid state’s service delivery failures. Crush & Ramanchandran note for example that, “the failures of the government to deal with endemic poverty, joblessness, lack of shelter and basic services had led to the scapegoating of foreign migrants by frustrated citizens.” Proximate causes consist of governance deficit (violence usually occurs in areas where leadership is absent, weak, or complicit) and violence entrepreneurship (with violent groups organising violence to further their own political and economic interests). Precipitants and triggers include violent community protests and mobilisation by local political and/or economic actors.

Increasing xenophobic populism and ongoing xenophobic violence are evidence that neither South Africa’s government nor civil society has been able to devise effective preventative or response mechanisms. Indeed, in a report on xenophobic violence in South Africa published in 2021 Misago, Kabiri & Mlilo note that “Despite the recently adopted National Action Plan (NAP) to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the official South African government's response to xenophobia and related violence has been characterised by denialism, lack of political will and impunity for all actors involved.” Similarly, numerous programmes by international and national civil society organisations to foster peaceful cohabitation and tolerance through social dialogue and campaigns have proven ineffective, particularly because they are not evidence-based. As the same authors conclude, only a “sustained state political will, informed by accountability, rule of law and eradication of impunity, together with evidence-based civil society interventions can help prevent xenophobic violence [in South Africa] or at least mitigate its effects”.

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Dr Jean Pierre Misago is a Senior Researcher with the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. His research focuses on the effects of migration and displacement on identity and belonging; xenophobia and violent outsider exclusion; and management of migration and human mobility at local authority level.