Migration: Where South Africans are moving to

There were just over 900,000 South Africans living abroad in 2020. That number has been steadily increasing since 2000, when it was about 500,000 , according to Statistics SA’s Migration Profile Report for South Africa 2023.

Seven out of 10 expat South Africans are living in either Europe or Oceania. Australia and New Zealand have seen a large growth in South African residents. In 2020 there were about 273,000 South Africans living in those two countries, more than double the 106,000 who lived there in 2000.

Top 5 most popular destinations

Australia and New Zealand are among the top 5 most popular countries South Africans move to. The number of South Africans in Australia increased by 150% in the 20-year period and by 190% in New Zealand.

The United Kingdom has the most South Africans. There were around 247,000 living there in 2020. The number has increased by about 80% since 2000.

The US and Canada are also among the top 5 countries. About 117,000 South African citizens were living in the US in 2020, up 80% from 2000.

Canada seems to have cooled off as a destination, relatively speaking, because the number of South Africans living there has increased by only 30% since 2000. There were just under 50,000 in 2020.

SA’s asylum-seekers

The US is interesting because it seems to be the preferred destination for South African refugees seeking asylum.

Stats SA’s migration report doesn’t offer any insight into why South Africans are seeking asylum in the first place, but it does show that a third (1,351) of the total 4,258 asylum-seekers in 2022 were hoping to get into the US.

Their chances appear to be pretty slim. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, 56 South Africans were granted asylum in the US between 2013 and 2022, although there were a few years (2014, 2016 and 2017) where data was ‘withheld to limit disclosure’, so the number may be higher.

People seeking residence status in the US for more conventional reasons seem to be more successful. There was a sharp uptick in the number of South Africans obtaining permanent residence there in 2022.

SA in the UK

At the time of the last census in the UK in March 2021, there were 205,000 South Africans living in England and Wales alone, according to the Office for National Statistics. Many of them are highly qualified. More than half (54%) of those aged 16 years and older hold higher education qualifications such as a degree.

Of the 10 countries with the highest migrant populations living in England and Wales (see the chart below), only the Nigerians have a higher proportion of highly qualified ‘migrants’ (68%) than South Africans.

South Africans Down Under

South Africans who have moved to Australia are also often highly educated: 43% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

There were 189,207 people born in South Africa living in Australia in 2021, when the last census took place, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. A third (36%) were working as professionals and 15% as managers.

Are people coming back to SA?

StatsSA’s migration profile report has numbers for South African citizens who returned from their previous country of residence in the years 2011 and 2022 only. These were the years the past two censuses were conducted. There was a clear drop of nearly 40% in the number of returnees in 2022.

There was also a significant drop in returnees to Gauteng in 2022, from 17,700 to 7,500. In 2022 more people returned to the Western Cape than Gauteng.