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[FACT CHECK] What's the true number of undocumented migrants in SA?

Researched by Gopolang Makou

In his trademark black hat, South Africa’s police minister said his department will work “with lightning speed” to turn around an increase in crime.

Minister Bheki Cele said one problem was that the country needed more police officers as the population had grown from almost 54 million in 2010 to 57.3 million. (Note: The official 2018 population estimate is higher, at 57.73 million.)

When it was his turn to speak, national police commissioner Khehla Sitole said this figure “excludes the undocumented migrants in the country”.

The count is “plus minus 11,000” people to which Cele whispered “11 million”.

Sitole corrected himself: “11 million people who visited this country never returned to their own countries.”

CLAIMS ABOUT MIGRANT NUMBERS KEEP CROPPING UP

Over the years, Africa Check has come across many similar claims: of five million migrants, six million and even 13 million migrants living in South Africa.

No one can account for every undocumented migrant, of course, but available datasets point to a figure magnitudes lower.

Police spokesperson Vish Naidoo said Sitole’s claim was based on data provided by South Africa’s Department of Home Affairs. We asked department spokesperson David Hlabane to explain to Africa Check how it was put together, but he has not responded. (Note: We’ll update this report should Hlabane respond.)

CENSUS DATA VERSUS BORDER RECORDS

A specialist in demography and the analysis of census and survey data told Africa Check the 11 million figure “doesn’t make sense”.

Tom Moultrie, director at the Centre for Actuarial Research at the University of Cape Town, said “in a simple common sense check” it’s hard to believe so many people would not be covered by any census.

South Africa’s 2011 Census and 2016 Community Survey asked people where they were born. In 2011, an estimated 2.2 million people said they were born outside of South Africa. But in 2016, the number unexpectedly dropped – to 1.6 million.

Statistics South Africa said it was investigating this discrepancy with the help of migration experts around the country. The results are yet to be released, however.

Moultrie suspects the home affairs data could be “based on the old border forms”.

“But the problem is that those forms are captured when people enter the country but not necessarily when they leave,” Moultrie said. “You can’t simply say: ‘How many entry forms did we process?’”

Writing previously about the problems with data on migration, Moultrie said the “likely answer” to how many immigrants live in South Africa “lies between one and three million”. This is a far cry from Sitole’s 11 million.

This article appeared on AfricaCheck.org, a non-partisan organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and the media. Follow them on Twitter: @AfricaCheck

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