FACT CHECK: Does SA really have 15 million illegal migrants?

By senior researcher Cayley Clifford

In March 2021, the hashtag #15MillionIllegalMigrants appeared on Twitter, with claims that there were 15 million illegal migrants in South Africa.

One tweet shows a screenshot of a document that claims South Africa has “just over 15 million unregistered or undocumented people”.

Another has a screenshot of a November 2020 tweet by Herman Mashaba, former mayor of Johannesburg, in which he claimed there were 15 million “undocumented foreigners” in South Africa.

Africa Check fact checked Mashaba’s tweet, and found no evidence for the 15 million figure. Three months later, there’s still no evidence.


The source for Mashaba’s claim was a 2019 article about the number of unregistered people in South Africa. Data from the World Bank does show that in 2018 15.3 million people in South Africa did not have identification documents.

But the number includes both citizens and residents who don’t have “proof of legal identity”. It does not refer to the number of undocumented migrants.

The World Bank’s data doesn’t give a number for “migrants, refugees and stateless persons” who don’t have South African identity documents. Migrants may have other official forms of identification, such as a passport from their original country.


South Africa’s 2011 census shows that about 2.2 million people born in other countries were then living in South Africa.

By 2020, the number was 3.9 million, according to Statistics South Africa’s mid-year population estimates for the year. This was confirmed by Diego Iturralde, Stats SA’s chief director of demography and population statistics, in our November 2020 report on Mashaba’s claim. The number included both documented and undocumented migrants, he said.

The United Nations population division estimates that there were 2.8 million international migrants living in South Africa in 2020.

It’s difficult to account for every undocumented migrant, but all available data points to a number much lower than 15 million.

On 22 November 2020, Mashaba acknowledged in a statement that he was “incorrect” to claim there were 15 million “undocumented foreigners” in South Africa.

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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