Lyndith Waller

Document Type

Migration Policy Briefs

Publication Date



Balsillie School of International Affairs


Irregular migration poses a considerable problem for South Africa in migration management, population planning, infrastructure development, resource management, governance, social services, economic development and security. A government can only work with what it knows, with a reasonable margin of error. By its nature, irregular migration creates many unknowns. Where entry into South Africa is clandestine or fraudulent, no proper account can be kept of the migrant’s presence, movement, identity, nationality, health status or activities. Without the ability to measure the problem, the ability to address it remains elusive.

For years, figures on the number of irregular migrants present in South Africa have been bandied about and strongly contested. In a 1996 report, commissioned by the government, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) estimated the number at between 2.5 and 4 million, but suggested it could be as high as 12 million. The HSRC used a sample survey method to estimate the number of irregular migrants in South Africa. Going from door to door across the country, surveyors asked how many noncitizens lived on the property. The sample figure was then extrapolated and the number of legally resident non-citizens, as determined by Statistics South Africa through the census, was subtracted. This manner of survey was repeated every six months in an attempt to track movement patterns of irregular migrants. Critics of the HSRC figures include Maxine Reitzes and Jonathan Crush, who suggest that it could be as low as 500 000. In 2002 the HSRC withdrew its estimate. Nevertheless, the Department of Home Affairs quotes figures of between 2.5 and 5 million or up to 7 million. The media, not being in a position to conduct independent research, moves freely between these numbers.

As the debate raged, the Minister of Home Affairs pleaded that less attention be given to how many irregular migrants were present, and more be focused on whether it is a problem and what it is costing South Africa7. As the Draft Green Paper on International Migration8 states: “Speculative assessments have also been made of the impact of unauthorised migration on our education, health-care and social welfare systems. We have looked carefully at all available figures and must declare that we have little faith in them. It would, of course, be very helpful if officials and planners had accurate statistics, but even under the best circumstances these are difficult to collect as people have an interest in not declaring their presence.”