Undocumented Migrants — The Myths, Realities, and What we Know and Don't Know

The fact that we don't actually know how many 'undocumented' migrants there are is, in part, attributable to a systemic problem of state administration with the Department of Home Affairs.

24 March 2022 ·   6 min read

Undocumented Migrants — The Myths, Realities, and What we Know and Don't Know

Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia had planned a demonstration on Human Rights Day 2022 across South Africa, but alas it was banned by the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD). The aim of the ban was to avoid conflict since those involved in Operation Dudula had threatened to attack the anti-xenophobia march.

The JMPD could not guarantee the safety of both sides in a possible confrontation fueled by a concoction of mistruths and misperceptions about non-nationals being responsible for unemployment, crime and poverty in South Africa.

This approach by the JMPD further exposed how under-resourced they are and how incapable they have been in dealing with xenophobic violence in South Africa. This appears to back up the view that the police, given substantial media attention for its harassment of non-nationals, has indeed taken a xenophobic stance.

Xenophobic attacks and harassment of refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants and other locally defined “outsiders” are often fueled by politicians' populist rhetoric and influential people in the news media in South Africa.

Politicians are riding deep-seated anti-“foreigner” sentiment instead of presenting workable solutions to the real problems in South Africa, such as the provision of water, housing, toilets, sanitation and waste management, jobs, electricity, and the combating of corruption, poverty and unemployment.

But what do we know, or not know about the issues? This article takes a look at some claims made by ActionSA and other populist movements targeting non-nationals and weighs them against research evidence.

Last week on social media, Herman Mashaba, who is known for his controversial anti-“foreign national” rhetoric, reshared ActionSA's “immigration blueprint” first released by his party in 2020.

In the document, ActionSA states “it is estimated that 10% of all people living in South Africa are undocumented migrants”. ActionSA doesn't cite its source for that figure and media reportage in 2021 made claims of this number sitting at four million undocumented migrants, citing Stats SA as a source.

But the truth is, we don't know how many “undocumented” migrants there are in the country. In response to claims made in media reports citing the figure at four million, Stats SA states that these reports were “erroneous” and that “Stats SA wishes to categorically indicate that it has at no point made any estimation or comment on undocumented migrants”.

Statistician-General Risenga Maluleke said that “if one uses the output of foreign-born persons enumerated in Census 2011 and adds to it the net international migrants for the period 2011-2016, as well as the period 2016-2021 from the 2021 midyear population estimates, one would get an estimation of 3.95 million persons”, but “this includes migrants of all types and is collated regardless of legal status”.

The fact that we don't actually know how many “undocumented” migrants there are, is in part attributable to a systemic problem of state administration with the Department of Home Affairs, and in part to the geographical landscape of Africa, where definitive boundaries between “mine” and “yours” in communities that live close to borders are non-existent.

So, what do we know?

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1. Administrative violence is a reality

Both migrants and South Africans face “administrative violence” by the Department of Home Affairs regarding documentation, the Brenthurst Foundation heard from multiple sources in its ongoing research on migrant experiences with Covid-19 in South Africa.

ActionSA says in its “immigration blueprint” that “the problem is not that citizens of other countries have chosen our country as their home, but rather that too many foreigners enter South Africa without following the legal process of immigration”. But, as an NGO that works with migrants points out, “nobody wants to be undocumented… the pathways to documentations are limited and those that are available are skewed”.

We also know that refugee centres of the Department of Home Affairs are closed in some provinces, in some cases since the inception of Covid and in other provinces since 2012. So, any asylum seeker or refugee whose documents expired during this period has been unable to renew their documents, rendering them “undocumented” — not because they are not willing to renew their documentation, but because Home Affairs' centres are not available to enable them to do so.

The Africa Integration Agenda, as well as Agenda 2063, seeks to enhance free movement of persons, right of establishment and right of abode for African citizens among African countries. This includes the elimination of visa requirements for travel by Africans within Africa, and makes redundant the issue of whether an African in Africa is documented or not documented.

Consequently, progressive African states in several other regional economic communities have already instituted visa-free travel for up to 90 days, and visas on arrival have been implemented by other African countries. Some have even signed bilateral and multilateral visa-free arrangements between their respective countries, aimed at bolstering trade, job creation and inclusive growth.

The recently signed African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) will not work if people cannot move freely within the continent and have to go through extremely stringent procedures, most of which do not work. If we cannot move, we cannot trade. Cross-border trade accounts for almost 60% of intra-African trade.

2. Headhunting of locals hampering the country and the potential of skilled non-nationals is not being explored

As South Africa is doing its best to discourage skilled Africans from entering the country, other more developed economies are headhunting the best and brightest from South Africa, leading to an exodus of many critical skills from the country. Canada, US, New Zealand, UK and Australia are among those who are headhunting.

As these developed countries continue to headhunt skills from South Africa and illustrate to people their clearly laid out pathways to documentation, it will get to a point where many of the skills that South Africa needs will have left, rendering the Critical Skills List futile.

The efforts and resources being used to keep Africans from entering the country would be more usefully directed at preserving the best and brightest we currently have, and attracting skilled people from across the continent.

Among undocumented migrants are some highly educated and skilled people who are worth paying attention to. As one respondent said to us in our migrant survey, “my gardener has a degree in teaching, while my barber is a chartered accountant”. A skills audit could yield a massive skills harvest for South Africa's critical skills deficit.

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A rational approach would be based on a skills audit of South Africa's 13 million unemployed people. The skilled among them should be used to meet South Africa's critical skills shortages, with the shortfall being addressed by skills from elsewhere. To achieve this, non-nationals would have to be properly and efficiently documented by the Department of Home Affairs.

3. Statelessness of children born in South Africa to non-nationals causes serious problems

Migration has both stock and flow dimensions. In addition to the challenges of flows, there are also challenges with the stock of migrants in South Africa that exacerbates in the long term the issue of undocumented migrants.

A typical example is the issue of statelessness. A baby born in South Africa to non-national parents is not issued with a birth certificate. We heard this from multiple sources in an ongoing study undertaken by the Brenthurst Foundation.

A baby born to non-national parents in South Africa is rendered “stateless” with no national identity, and is issued only with a hand-written note from the Department of Home Affairs. This note serves as proof of the date of birth, the parents they were born to and the place they were born in.

But this hand-written note is not captured on the national database, the Brenthurst Foundation heard. When the child turns 16, they are barred from applying for an identity document that is needed to write matric. But this problem is not unique to only children of migrant parents. There are stateless children of South African parents too, as a result of the dysfunctionality of the Department of Home Affairs.

As one of our key NGO informants in the study explained, “There is a huge gap in understanding [on the part of the state] when an undocumented child becomes an irregular migrant liable for deportation, and all protection from the Children's Act falls away because the child is now 18 years… So those are many of the issues we still need to tackle.”

Mothers (South African or otherwise) who give birth far away from a Home Affairs office face the struggle of attempting to document a child later after birth. Mothers are faced with obstacle after obstacle to register their child late. This is not necessarily the fault of a mother, but is rather an issue of access.

Our research shows that the root of the problem lies with documentation. The Department of Home Affairs must allow its policy decisions to be informed by good research and real data.

Right now, populist campaigns against foreigners are using the absence of real statistics to place exaggerated numbers and inaccurate reasons in the public domain to justify their xenophobic actions.

This article originally appeared on Daily Maverick

Photo: Borgen Project