International Relations

Migration Policy

Millions of people migrate across the world in search of a better life. Some to join family, some driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, and others forced to flee from persecution and deprivation. Whatever the motivation, all migrate in the hope that beyond their borders lies opportunity. It has been estimated that if all of the world’s international migrants (people living in countries other than their own country of birth) lived in one country, it would amount to around 281 million people. That is about the population size of Indonesia, which is the world’s fourth-largest country. In total, international migrants account for 3.3% of the global population.

Although estimates are often contested, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) estimates that there are 3.95 million migrants (regardless of legal status) in South Africa as of 2021. The majority of migrants come from neighbouring countries such as Eswatini, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe. As the most industrialised economy in the region it comes as no surprise that South Africa is the top destination for migrants from Southern Africa, receiving 23% of all migrants in the region. However, South Africa is not only a receiving country and South Africans migrate to neighbouring countries as well, such as Eswatini, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe or further abroad, to countries such as the United Kingdom (UK), Australia, and the United States of America (USA).

Intra-regional migration is common within Sub-Saharan Africa. By 2020, 63% of all migrants born in sub-Saharan Africa, lived in another country in the region. Despite the high incidence of migration, or perhaps because of it, for many countries migration has become a hotly contested issue. On the other side of hope are millions who see migrants as a threat; a threat to already scarce resources, a threat to livelihoods, and ultimately a threat to national values. Some of these threats are real and are based on the real experiences of people in communities who bear the brunt of failed immigration and other government policy.

However, many threats, as this paper will demonstrate, are either based on inaccurate information or fears which are unlikely to materialise, and which are stoked by uncertainty of the unknown and by the politicians who profit from it. South Africa has struggled with incidences of xenophobic sentiment and related prejudice, violence, and crime for many years. The cost of xenophobia is high; it puts lives in danger, stunts economic potential by deterring investment, tourism and cross-border trade, and risks making South Africa a pariah in Africa and on the global arena.

It is critical to constructively engage legitimate fears and concerns. Demonising genuine fears and concerns risks entrenching opinions and other defensive positions. The task for any government is to harness the opportunity presented by migration, while taking seriously the anxieties of those who feel left behind. Helpfully, the narrative of opportunity is backed by the weight of socioeconomic evidence.


Strategic Approach


Our migration priorities are to ensure policy is designed to:

  • Attract skills, knowledge sharing, and know-how;
  • Promote trade and investment by removing migration barriers to businesses (big and small);
  • Encourage tourism, and
  • Progressively move towards freedom of movement.


South Africa must ensure that irrespective of the reason for travel our rules and procedures encourage compliance by being easy to understand, fair, and transparent. Our proposals should progressively lead to achieving freedom of movement into and out of South Africa for all persons. If implemented effectively, such freedom should over time reduce restrictions applied to South African citizens too when traveling the world. South Africans also reap the benefits of a continent and world in which it is made easy to work, start a business, travel and/or study abroad.

We can achieve all this by harnessing the following opportunities:


Opportunity created by freer movement of people


The DA is committed to framing migration policy in the language of opportunity as opposed to the language of fear. The language of fear communicates that we need to do a better job of keeping people out, while the language of opportunity is that we need to do a better of job of enabling people to enter and remain legally. This includes secure borders, as well as efficient, fair, and transparent legal channels for migration and trade.

The World Bank has estimated the size of the opportunity presented by the African Continental Free Trade Area. This could lead to a 7% (or $450 billion) increase in regional income, faster wage growth for women, and the lifting out of extreme poverty of approximately 30 million people by 2035. In addition, skilled and unskilled workers will also see their wages rise by 10.3% and 9.8%, respectively. The free movement of people is thus expected to help contribute to economic integration of the African continent.

There is plentiful research indicating that the corruption of officials as well as the 89% rejection rate of applications by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) drives the illicit market for ‘papers’. Moreover, many Refugee Reception Offices (RROs) in South Africa have a rejection rate of between 95% and 100% on asylum applications, which raises questions and concerns about the process for determining the status of refugees.

Ensuring that the documentation process is accessible, fair, and transparent will go a long way to manage the proliferation of undocumented migrants. More importantly, this will ensure that the focus is on improving the system, and not merely increased securitisation of the border. For many foreign nationals who enter the country legally, the struggle to remain legally occurs internally.


Opportunity created by economic participation of migrants


The language of fear is that foreign migrants compete for public resources and jobs; the language of opportunity is that migrants pay rent, pay taxes, transfer skills, know-how and knowledge, and purchase goods and services contributing to South Africa’s revenue. Foreign migrants often create jobs and, in some areas, employ more South Africans than locals do. Local research by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO) found that although foreigners own 80% of local informal trade they employ twice as many South Africans on average than their South African competitors (6 vs 3) and are more than twice as likely to pay rent to a South African for their retail premises.

Due to the high employment returns to education and South Africa’s skills deficit, the concern about competition for jobs finds primary expression among low skilled and unskilled work. Calculating the precise effect of migration on employment of locals in South Africa is a complex endeavour. However, salient economic opinion in the field is that migrants either have a neutral impact on the employment prospects of South Africans or tend to create more jobs than they occupy. There is also the potential for the transmission of entrepreneurial skills, know-how and knowledge from migrants to locals.

The 2011 Census revealed that migrants are five times more likely to hold a diploma or a university degree than South Africans. In addition, approximately 1.5% of migrants have post-school qualifications compared to 0.3% of South Africans.16 In terms of social assistance, among the three child grants provided by the state, foreign-born migrants constituted just a mere 0.3% of the total beneficiaries. This indicates that concerns regarding pressure on social transfers, are at least in part not well founded.

A 2018 joint study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that migrant labour contributes significantly to the South African economy.

The study found that migrants:

  • generally, do not displace native born workers;
  • raise income per capita by up to 5%; and
  • have a positive effect on the government’s fiscal balance (through the payment of income tax and value added tax).


Noting the above, migrant workers overall contribute favourably to the economy of the country.

In another study, Mixed Migration, Forced Displacement and Job Outcomes in South Africa, findings included that between 1996 and 2011 one immigrant worker generated approximately two jobs for native-born individuals, having a net positive impact on jobs and wages in the country. The study further found that migrants and native-born individuals may hold employment which complement each other, rather than competing with one another. Migrants are also more likely to start their own business, which in return creates opportunities for locals and contributes positively to the economy. The study further found that around 25% of migrants are self- employed, indicative of the entrepreneurial and business skills they bring to the country and the possible benefits this holds.

Migrant-run businesses do not only benefit migrants but South Africans too. The UN Migration Case Study found that:

  • Migrant business owners often used additional community services such as transport services to deliver their stock, which contribute to employment opportunities for mostly South African nationals in the transportation sector.
  • They create employment opportunities in the areas in which they conduct their business from, for both local and foreign nationals.
  • Migrant business owners also contribute to the local economy in the form of rental payments to property owners, with 74% of the migrants in this study renting property from South Africans to conduct their businesses from.
  • These migrant businesses make both social and economic contributions in numerous ways in the communities they operate in, although these are not always recognisable. They provide employment opportunities, and bring much needed services and goods to areas, which are provided at affordable prices.


It is critical to recognise that migrants, across skill levels, contribute to host countries. Especially in service sectors, certificates and qualifications may be valued less than experience or other factors. This requires South African employers and policymakers to work together in developing frameworks for skills recognition and recognition of prior learning or experience to make sense of migrant hiring patterns. This is critical to promote greater understanding in sectors where the prevailing feeling is that migrants are being preferred where South Africans have equivalent skills. Without this understanding, South Africa risks turning away skills and know-how essential to its national economy.


Opportunity to address harmful myths

The language of fear also communicates that foreign nationals compete against South Africans for scarce public resources while the reality is that competition and the poor state of public resources is driven by high rates of unemployment, corruption, and political incompetence. Another misconception is that foreign nationals threaten our way of life and security; while those who flee economic hardship and authoritarian rule are often strongly committed to liberal democracy and to championing human rights. Furthermore, there is no indication that there is a greater propensity to crime by foreign nationals than South Africans.

Many foreign nationals want to enter legally, have qualities to contribute to the economy, and look forward to living in a free, secular, and developing society where they can realise their aspirations.

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