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By William Saunderson-Meyer

Journalist


Unmasking the true extent of illegal immigration

The most fundamental reason for emotion trumping reason regarding migrants is ignorance.


If not in next year’s elections, certainly the following one, the scale of illegal immigration – or, if you prefer to put it more delicately, of undocumented migration – is likely to be a major and potentially explosive issue. Part of the emotion around the issue is simply ugly xenophobia directed against a refugee community that, contrary to popular opinion, is a nett contributor to economic growth. Another part of it, however, is an entirely understandable reaction from poor South Africans who are having to compete for access to desperately scarce resources against sharp-elbowed aliens. And then there’s also the…

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If not in next year’s elections, certainly the following one, the scale of illegal immigration – or, if you prefer to put it more delicately, of undocumented migration – is likely to be a major and potentially explosive issue.

Part of the emotion around the issue is simply ugly xenophobia directed against a refugee community that, contrary to popular opinion, is a nett contributor to economic growth.

Another part of it, however, is an entirely understandable reaction from poor South Africans who are having to compete for access to desperately scarce resources against sharp-elbowed aliens. And then there’s also the undeniable role of foreign gangsters in serious crime.

But the most fundamental reason for emotion trumping reason regarding migrants is ignorance. No-one has an accurate handle on the extent of the problem.

At the upper end is the estimate of 15 million. This figure appears to have been just plucked out of the ether but has much traction in popular discussions and has often been bandied about by anti-migration politicians.

ALSO READ: The paradox of inclusion: SA’s struggle with immigration and inequality

At the lower end is that of Stats SA, released last month, of 2.4 million, only 200 000 up from the 2011 census figure. It’s substantially down from the 2020 estimates of Stats SA and the UN of 3.9 million and 4.2 million respectively.

No academic demographer that I’ve spoken to in the past fortnight has much faith in the 2.4 million figures, describing it variously as “implausible”, “a thumbsuck” and “unlikely”.

Stats SA, too, is refreshingly frank about the limitations and contradictions of its data.

Responding to my questions, deputy director-general Yandiswa Mpetsheni points out that the earlier, higher, figures will not be discarded but remain part of Stats SA’s ongoing data evaluation process.

“In essence, we share your concern about migrant numbers and feel that this might be due to some migrants, in vulnerable positions, not availing themselves to being counted or that foreign nationals may have reported themselves as South African born … There are a few mitigating factors we would like to draw your attention to.”

ALSO READ: New York to limit migrant families’ stays

“Census 2022 took place at a time when we just came out of the Covid restrictions on mobility, which had an impact not only on the environment in which the Census was done, but on the mobility of people.

“At the time of the enumeration, there was some anti-migrant sentiment on the ground, with various vigilante groups wanting to determine the legal status of various migrants.

“In December 2021, a decision was taken not to renew the Zimbabwe exemption permits and holders of these were given 12 months to get other types of permits.

“The social unrest that took place in July 2021 had after-effects going into 2022, particularly among migrant groups. Burning of trucks that were part of the 2021 violence repeated itself in 2022 by targeting foreign truck drivers.

“A combination of these events may all have contributed to foreign-born persons in vulnerable circumstances, or among the undocumented to either avoid being counted or to misrepresent themselves and report themselves as being born in South Africa,” Mpetsheni writes.

ALSO READ: Census 2022’s 2.4 million foreign-born population figure deeply suspect

The accuracy of the migration statistics is not a matter of only esoteric interest.

It has planning and policy ramifications with significant budgetary implications. There are also potentially life-and-death consequences.

Against a backdrop of increasing unemployment and infrastructural and societal collapse, the conditions for demagoguery are perfect.

With next year’s elections looming, there is every possibility of these resentments and emotions – and uncertainty on the true scale of the problem – being exploited by unscrupulous politicians.

ALSO READ: ANC grapples with immigration dilemma ahead of elections

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