Published on Development for Peace

The urban dimensions of mixed migration and forced displacement in South Africa

This page in:
Braamfontein Railway Yards, Johannesburg © demerzel21

Across the world, the movement of people is an increasingly urban phenomenon. As such, researchers are beginning to recognize that the developmental consequences of migration are often felt most acutely at the municipal or provincial level. A newly published study Mixed Migration, Forced Displacement and Job Outcomes in South Africa, adds to the growing body of research on movement to cities by highlighting the important urban dimensions of these movements into and within South Africa.

The study examines the intermingled movement of refugees, asylum-seekers, as well as those who fall outside established protection categories, such as vulnerable economic migrants, to South Africa. In the global governance of migration, a basic distinction is made between those who choose to move (economic migrants) and those who are forced to (asylum-seekers/refugees). In practice however, this distinction is not always clear. The study uses the term ‘mixed migration’ to highlight how in Southern Africa and elsewhere, asylum-seekers and migrants sometimes travel together and are motivated by multiple, complex, reasons.

As the largest economy in Southern Africa, South Africa is a destination for migrants and refugees from all over Africa, and even parts of Asia. South Africa is also one of the most heavily urbanized countries in Africa. Drawn by the economic dynamism of cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, internal migrants, economic migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers alike, overwhelmingly move to these urban and peri-urban spaces in search of protection, livelihoods as well as access to services, such as housing, education and healthcare. These places, whether they are townships or parts of central Johannesburg, are marked by high levels of inequality, poverty and joblessness. Residents - nationals and non-nationals alike - lead precarious lives and face serious socio-economic hardships.

A history of restrictions on movement
South Africa’s contemporary urban context and mobility challenges are closely tied to its history of spatial and racialized exclusion. Through the establishment of various laws, the Apartheid state heavily controlled the movements of the black majority. Townships in South Africa were designed to act as labor reservoirs for cities and for industries in or around cities. Limited transport infrastructure was created and was only intended to carry workers to their places of employment or other centers of economic activity, and back. This has had direct implications for 1) settlement patterns in South African townships – which are often far from, and inadequately connected to, economic centers; 2) the provision of public services, especially the availability and quality of housing – issues that continue to be key drivers of periodic local community protests; and 3) conceptions about human mobility, particularly who has the right to lay claim to certain urban spaces and associated entitlements (such as municipal services) - a conception that is notably consequential for social cohesion.

Mobility and vulnerability in contemporary South Africa
In South Africa today, these legacies of spatialized inequality continue to influence how and where people move (especially into and around urban spaces such as Johannesburg), where they settle, and how migration is governed. Cities like Johannesburg are faced with high rates of unemployment, poor service delivery, poverty, overcrowding, high crime rates, and drug and alcohol abuse. It is in these contexts that migrants seek out their livelihoods, struggle to access services such as housing, medical care and education for themselves and their families and interact with state authorities. These circumstances, however, are not exclusively faced by international migrants. In some instances, South African migrants from other provinces also face similar challenges. In this sense, development actors often find it impossible to differentiate between the vulnerabilities that internal migrants, refugees and locals face in urban areas.

Major Policy implications
Prioritising the role of local authorities in the governance of migration: In South Africa, migration has generally been understood as falling within the domain of national policymakers. However, as South Africa continues to face increasing population mobility and rising urbanization of refugee/internal migrant populations, effectively assisting migrants and refugees will require (1) a re-examination of the role that provincial and municipal authorities could play in the governance of migration, and (2) creation of pragmatic incentives for these sub-national actors to work with migrants (including internal ones) and refugees. In particular, area-based programs that address the most pressing development challenges such as access to health, education and livelihoods, should be prioritized. Further, sustained efforts to build trust between communities and local authorities should underlie such programming.  

Improving access to services for both hosts and migrants/refugees: In addition to policies and practices on refugee protection, the livelihoods of refugees and asylum-seekers are significantly shaped by other policy sectors such as housing, health-care, education. It is also these policy areas that most intersect with the lives of poor host communities. Development actors, such as the South African government, should therefore focus on the ways in which migration and displacement intersect with access to urban services and livelihoods for communities. Improvements in the quality of social services, in a context where international and internal migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers live among one another and face similar service challenges, will not only benefit external migrants but also internal migrants and host communities. 


Helidah Refiloe Ogude

Social Development Specialist

Aditya Sarkar

Independent Researcher and Consultant

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000