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Migration and migration policy in the Southern African Development Community | Southern Africa |

Southern Africa Migration in the SADC International Migration in South Africa South Africa International Migration in South Africa

Migration and migration policy in the Southern African Development Community

Ottilia Anna Maunganidze

/ 9 Minuten zu lesen

There is high mobility in Southern Africa, and a coherent migration governance framework can help the region to better manage it. Despite hurdles, there are efforts within the region to achieve this.

As one of the most important highways in southern Africa, the Trans-Kalahari Highway runs through Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. This highway stretches from the Namibian Atlantic coast to Johannesburg in South Africa. (© picture-alliance, Matthias Toedt)

Southern Africa has a long history of mixed migration. Patterns have shifted and changed over the centuries, but the main features, which emerged during the colonial period, remain fairly constant. These are that the main drivers of migration to and from countries in Southern Africa are the search for better economic opportunities, family reunification, education, trade, as well as escaping political instability and increasingly more recently, environmental hazards and climate change.

The region has an estimated population of Externer Link: 379.7 million people, of which approximately 6.4 million were international migrants at mid-year 2020, according to the UN Population Division. Development in industry, mining and oil exploitation have been major drivers of economic progress in the region, with South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Angola as the regional migration magnets for labour migrants. The region also attracts migrants from the rest of the continent and other continents. Almost half of the international migrants in the 16-country Southern African Development Community (SADC) are in South Africa (2.9 million). South Africa, as the most industrialised economy in SADC, is the region and continent’s number one ‘migration magnet’.

The mixed migration picture in Southern Africa shows high-level mobility, which includes short-term cross-border movement to circular migration and permanent stays. While there is some country-level data, there is no comprehensive regional data reflecting the full migration picture. However, drawing on historical migratory patterns, and existing data, it is possible to reach clear conclusions on the state of migration in the region. It is these that inform the policy at regional and country-level.

SADC, as a Regional Economic Community (REC) of the African Union (and thus the African Economic Community), has developed its own regional policies and practices on migration, including those geared towards freedom of movement. However, as migration governance remains something for individual countries to develop and implement, there are varying approaches within SADC. Countries do not always agree on the best way forward to effectively manage migration in the region. The divergence is often between countries with higher outflows of migrants (such as the DRC and Zimbabwe) and those receiving them (such as South Africa).

Migration trends in Southern Africa

Migration has been a key feature of the region since the 19th century when labour migration was instrumental to the development of the growing extractive industries in the region. Exploitation of migrant labour was a key characteristic of the colonial period. Most of the flows from the late 19th century onwards went to South Africa, the DRC and Zambia. Much of this migration was stimulated by a strategy pursued by the mining sector and other businesses. These companies (forcefully) ‘imported’ labour from source countries (such as Lesotho, Malawi and Mozambique) and employed them at lower costs than local labourers.

However, starting in the 20th century, governments in the main receiving countries (Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) put pressure on businesses to source labour primarily from local communities. Stricter regulation of labour migration and tougher stances on the management of borders are now standard though these have not had a significant impact on the number of people migrating; they have only increased how many of those migrating do so through irregular channels. With pushes for regional trade liberalisation and regional integration, efforts to facilitate mobility are underway. These efforts are in line with the vision of the AU for a more integrated continent in which economic development is sustained through free trade (of goods, services, etc.) and free movement.

Migration and Free Movement in the SADC Region (Interner Link: Grafik zum Download) (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/4.0/

In Southern Africa approximately 75 percent of all African migrants in SADC are from within the region. While some migrants opt to settle, most migration in SADC is temporary and circular. Migrants also keep close ties to their home countries, including through remittances.

Emigrants from the SADC Member States 2020_finale (bpb) Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/4.0/

Migration in Southern Africa is far more complex than can be detailed in this short article. What is important to bear in mind is that a consistent regional migration policy framework is necessary for the SADC region.

Towards a policy of free movement in Southern Africa

The 1992 Treaty establishing SADC includes the ‘progressive elimination of barriers for goods, capital, services and people’ as one of its core objectives. In 1995, the first SADC Draft Protocol on the Free Movement of Persons aimed for citizens of one SADC state to enter freely, establish themselves and work in another SADC state. This proposal faced strong opposition from South Africa, Namibia and Botswana. In 2005, following amendments in 1997 and 2004, the Draft Protocol on the Facilitation of Movement of Persons was agreed on by SADC heads of state. It envisions migration management as a national competence for regional benefit. Although adopted, it has not yet entered into force, because only four member states (Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Eswatini) have ratified the protocol.

At a glance: Migration in the SADC region

  • Cross-border trade: Cross-border trade is a major source of income for small-scale traders in the region contributing up to 60 percent of all cross-border trade. 70 percent of all informal cross-border trade is conducted by women and accounts for as much as 40 percent of SADC trade.

  • Labour migration: Sectors such as construction, mining and services are major attractions for semi-skilled migrant labour, while commercial agriculture employs a large number of low-skilled seasonal migrants. Tanzania and South Africa also attract high-skilled labour in financial services.

  • Remittances: Remittances sent by migrants are a significant source of capital in SADC, with countries like the DRC, Lesotho and Zimbabwe relying extensively on remittances from their nationals working abroad, most of whom remain within the region.

  • Displacement: Civil wars and ongoing armed conflicts e.g. in the DRC have displaced large numbers of people within Southern African countries as well as across state borders. At the end of 2022, there were 5.7 million conflict-related internally displaced people in the DCR – in a global comparison, only Syria had more IDPs. Mozambique also had a significant IDP population of one million. At the end of 2022, the SADC region hosted about 940,000 refugees, most of them lived in the DRC (521,000) and Tanzania (206,000). At the same time there were 956,000 refugees originating from one of the SADC Member States, with the DRC being by far the main source country (932,000 refugees came from there).

Source: Migration Data Portal, Migration Data in the Southern African Development Community, Externer Link: (accessed: 13-7-2023).


  1. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Economic Development in Africa, Report 2018: Migration for Structural Transformation, New York and Geneva, 2018, p. 85, Externer Link: (accessed: 13-7-2023).

  2. Migration Data Portal, Migration Data in the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Externer Link: (accessed: 13-7-2023).

  3. Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) and Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), GRID 2023: Internal displacement and food security, 2023, p. 7, Externer Link: (accessed: 13-7-2023).

  4. UNHCR, Refugee Data Finder, Externer Link: (accessed: 11-7-2023).

While ratification of the protocol is proceeding only slowly, much more progress exists through bilateral and (smaller) multilateral arrangements. These arrangements mean that even though there is not a single adopted policy of free movement in the region, citizens of SADC countries can move within SADC fairly freely – at least for short stays. For example, nationals of SADC Member States do not require visas before travelling to Mauritius, Seychelles, and Zimbabwe. Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia have eased visa requirements for citizens of other SADC Member States. However, there are still some limitations to travel to the DRC, Madagascar and Angola, albeit not for citizens of all SADC countries.

Compared to other regions in Africa, SADC member states have more mechanisms that allow people to move freely across borders. SADC has the largest number of countries in the top 20 of African states with open borders, that is states with liberal visa policies. Seychelles for example does not require visas from nationals of any other Africa state.

Efforts at the continental level complement the regional efforts. On 29 January 2018, the AU adopted a protocol aimed at advancing freedom of movement in Africa. The protocol requires every Regional Economic Community (REC) – such as SADC – to establish autonomous free movement blocs.

Migration governance

In 2000, SADC and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) established the Migration Dialogue Process for Southern Africa (MIDSA), a non-binding regional consultative process on migration for SADC member states to regularly engage to enhance inter-state cooperation on migration governance. At MIDSA, the range of issues discussed includes border management, combatting irregular migration (including smuggling and trafficking of people), migrant health, development, migration governance and data exchange. This platform allows SADC states to share experiences and challenges and jointly develop solutions to improve migration management in the region. An essential intended outcome of MIDSA is the development of regional institutional capacities to improve migration governance while strengthening the capacity of governments to meet challenges associated with migration.

In 2019, a MIDSA ministerial recommendation stressed the importance of sharing data to improve migration governance in the region. It included three key components. First, the establishment of national coordination mechanisms on migration to engage national data suppliers, producers, users as well as national research institutions to ensure the effective collection, analysis and use of migration data at the national level. Second, the need to strengthen regional cooperation on migration data to ensure standardised and comparable migration surveys in all Southern African countries. Third, for IOM to work closely with governments in SADC to support the development or updating of country-specific migration profiles that are comparable across the region and could be used to inform evidence-based migration policies. In 2020, IOM launched the Regional Migration Data Hub for Southern Africa (RMDHub) to serve as a central repository of migration data and information gathered through studies, research and operational activities in the SADC Region.

On labour migration, in 2013, SADC agreed to its first Labour Migration Action Plan (2013-2015). In 2014, SADC laid out a Labour Migration Policy Framework, and in 2016, outlined a second Labour Migration Action Plan (2016-2019).

With some members of SADC also being part of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU), the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) or the East African Community (EAC), overlapping regional integration efforts have also allowed some SADC citizens visa-free access to countries outside of SADC. Particularly, the 2012 tripartite agreement between the COMESA, the EAC and the SADC is a key driver to fast-track the facilitation of the free movement of goods and persons between the three regional economic communities, which together cover almost the entirety of the eastern half and southern sphere of the continent.

Anti-foreigner sentiments

Attacks on migrants in 2008, 2015, 2019 and since 2021 in Interner Link: South Africa have temporarily or permanently displaced some migrant populations in the country. The 2019 South African National Action Plan (NAP) to Combat Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was adopted as a tool to address, among others, the rise in anti-foreigner sentiments. At MIDSA, South Africa’s perceived lax approach to addressing xenophobia, particularly aimed at nationals from other African countries, has been discussed, with countries such as Zimbabwe raising concerns of institutionalised xenophobia. Anti-foreigner sentiments are among the stumbling blocks that hamper the development of comprehensive policies for the free movement of persons within the region.


Migration is and has always been a key issue in Southern Africa – from the historical drivers of migration in the region that inform current trends and practices to the changing policy landscape that seeks to better leverage integration for development while balancing national security needs. However, there are still diverging views among the 16 countries in the region on the best approach to migration management. This means that most arrangements to foster integration through free movement are likely to remain between states rather than at regional level. Major stumbling blocks with regard to migration governance and the implementation of free movement rights are the practicalities of rolling out a single comprehensive and coherent regional approach, and anti-foreigner sentiments driven, in part, by a competition for limited resources in unequal societies. Nevertheless, the existing channels of collaboration and constructive discussions between countries offer a glimmer of hope.

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is the head of special projects at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). Since 2009, her work at the ISS, aimed at advancing human security, has included a particular focus on international legal regimes, migration policy and practice, accountability and justice.