‘Reverse emigration’ in South Africa – this is how many people actually came home

 ·2 Apr 2024

South Africa has bid farewell to over 400,000 emigrants over the last 20 years – and only fraction of them have actually made their way back home.

Stats SA has published its Migration Profile Report for South Africa, revealing the numbers of people who have left the country behind – and those who have returned.

The data shows that, since 2000, around 413,000 South Africans have emigrated to other countries – and in 2022, just under 28,000 made their way back.

In lieu of any official data from Stats SA and government departments like Home Affairs, information and trends on emigration (and reverse emigration) in South Africa have typically been left to the anecdotes of businesses and analysts in the industry.

External analytics – and other countries’ home offices, which track this data far better – have painted a picture of mass migration out of South Africa, with groups like the South African Revenue Service and New World Wealth showing that it is often richer, skilled citizens making the jump.

The latest data from Stats SA, using information from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, corroborates this narrative, showing that the number of South Africans living abroad has increased significantly over the last two decades.

In 2000, there were a total of 501,600 South African citizens residing abroad. In 2005, this increased to 550,462 and only continued to jump from there: 743,807 in 2010; 786,554 in 2015; and finally, in 2020, the number reached 914,901.

This shows that over 413,000 South Africans left the country over 20 years.

Looking at where South Africans relocate, the data shows that most set up in the United Kingdom, followed by Australia, the USA, New Zealand and Canada.

Over the years, 110,600 South Africans moved to the UK, 119,000 moved to Australia, and 52,000 headed to the United States.

What’s particularly noteworthy is that approximately 4,250 South Africans have managed to leave the country as refugees – a number that has ramped up significantly since around 2014.

This has been most successful in the United States, where over 1,350 South Africans entered as Asylum seekers in 2022.

Reverse emigration

The data on South Africans living abroad is not really new, with Stats SA echoing data published by the UN previously.

However, the Stats SA document also looks at cases of ‘return migration’ – where individuals or groups of people move back to their country of origin after moving abroad.

“Information on return migration is important for several reasons, as it provides valuable insights into migration patterns, social dynamics, and policy implications. Return migration contributes to the overall understanding of migration patterns and trends,” Stats SA said.

An emerging narrative among certain sectors – like the property sector – is that South Africans are returning to their homeland after a period abroad, drawn by the lower cost of living (relative to main destination countries) and other pull factors like weather and family.

However, according to Stats SA’s data (based on the 2011 and 2022 census), the data does not show an acceleration in the number of South Africans returning.

In 2011, around 45,860 South Africans returned from living abroad, according to the census. In 2022 only 27,983 South Africans said the same.

It is worth noting that both the UN data and the census data are not exactly aligned, nor do they track the exact same thing – meaning South Africa’s problems with officially tracking emigration data persist.

However, this does give a better scope of the migration patterns of South Africans: more locals are leaving than coming back.

Despite this, Stats SA has tried to calm fears of a brain drain in the country, noting that it is actually a net beneficiary of skill migration.

“The country has experienced a substantial increase in immigration… The growing number and proportion of African immigrants suggest the beginning of a skills brain drain to South Africa, which could accelerate further in the future.

“This suggests that immigrants, particularly from African countries, are bringing valuable skills to the labour market. Furthermore, it is evident that migration has brought in a highly skilled labour force, potentially filling gaps in the country’s labour market and contributing to economic growth,” the group said.

Read: Reverse emigration trend in South Africa a big boost for the Cape

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