E.g., 12/04/2023
E.g., 12/04/2023
Botswana's Changing Migration Patterns

Botswana's Changing Migration Patterns

bc map

Since gaining its independence from Britain in 1966, Botswana has rapidly evolved from an impoverished migrant sending country to a migrant receiving country that has attracted skilled professionals from across the continent, brought home many of its own expatriate nationals, and become a destination for refugees and asylum seekers from the Southern African region in particular.

The buoyancy of the national economy has been the principal driver behind this transition from migrant sending to migrant receiving, with consistent increases in GDP averaging 6.1 percent annually from 1966-1994/5, making Botswana among the fastest-growing economies in the world. Hence, the country's self-styled moniker, the "Gem of Africa."

However, in becoming the "Gem of Africa" Botswana faced a number of critical limits to economic growth, including severely underdeveloped infrastructure, a lack of start-up capital, a national population of less than one million people through the early 1980s, and a largely unskilled workforce. To combat these limitations, the government adopted an open approach to migration policy, allowing relatively unrestricted entry to visitors, tourists, and job seekers, soliciting foreign investment through incentives for multinationals such as DeBeers, and courting foreign professionals to work in Botswana.

In this way, growth and development came quickly to Botswana, and the country now boasts one of the strongest economies on the continent, political stability, and great improvements in quality of life for citizens. But with this overwhelmingly positive outlook for the future, it appears that the value of Botswana's "open" migration policy has begun to decline. With an increasingly educated and skilled domestic labor force, dependence on foreign skills is waning, and until recently, analysts might have predicted an eventual shift towards a more restrictive immigration policy.

Instead, this process has been dramatically hastened by the unforeseen arrival of thousands of undocumented Zimbabweans through clandestine channels, fleeing political turbulence and economic "meltdown" at home. Botswana's government has reacted swiftly by introducing new border controls and harsher punishment for illegal migrants, while levels of xenophobia are on the rise across the country, where this was once virtually unknown. As a result, it now seems the "Gem of Africa" is rapidly destined to be once again the exclusive property of the Batswana population.

Political Transition and Economic Growth

Prior to independence, Botswana was primarily a migrant sending country, with few features to make it an alluring "destination" state in Southern Africa. It ranked among the world's 20 poorest countries, with real per-capita income measured at only about $300 in 1966, according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). With only one percent of Batswana living in urban areas before 1963, the overwhelmingly rural population survived mostly through subsistence farming and cattle herding, which fell under constant threat by years of drought.

Given the profound poverty at home, thousands of Batswana men became contract laborers in South Africa's gold and diamond mines as far back as the late 19th century, alongside workers from Angola, Lesotho, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Contract work was regulated by a bilateral agreement between South Africa and Botswana, with a built-in system of deferred pay that channeled significant remittances back into the national economy. In 1984, 18,691 Batswana miners generated nearly R17 million ($2.6 million) in officially recorded remittances alone, which helped to grow Botswana's rural economies in particular.

However, only one year after independence, one of the world's most fertile diamond pipes was unearthed at Orapa in Botswana's Central Kalahari region, followed by similar discoveries in Letlhakane and Jwaning. With an abundance of mineral wealth, the country's rapid rate of growth continued unabated, and in 1972 Botswana achieved economic self-sufficiency. By 1976, the government had replaced the South African rand with its own national currency, the Botswana pula. As a result, when downsizing and retrenchments in South African mines occurred during the late 1980s and early 1990s, a decline in monitored remittances to only R383,000 ($59,447) by 1997 from some 12,000 Batswana workers was hardly of consequence to the fertile national economy.

Open for All, Manning the Economy

From the 1970s onwards, Botswana's rapid economic growth required labor and expertise, and the government's open migration policy approach successfully secured these from across the continent. Through the 1990s, significant in-migration flows included Batswana expatriates returning home to new national prosperity, skilled foreign workers filling gaps in professional sectors, and refugees and asylum seekers from Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa in particular.

Retrenchments in South African mines, as well as the appeal of economic and political stability at home, brought steady numbers of expatriates back to Botswana, and the national census showed that the documented number of nationals living "abroad" fell from 45,735 in 1971, to 38,606 in 1991, and to 28,210 by 2001. In fact, when long-serving foreign mine workers were offered the chance to apply for permanent residence in South Africa in 1996, less than half of the 9,580 eligible Batswana applied. Given the vitality of the mining industry, the government likely faced little difficulty in re-absorbing contract workers returning home.

During this time, Botswana also actively recruited both industrial investment and skilled professionals from across the continent. Foreign workers were aggressively pursued to fill skills gaps in sectors including technology, management, education, engineering, law, and healthcare, and were offered competitive salaries, subsidized housing, cars, health insurance, and free education for expatriate children. As a result, the number of legal non-nationals living in Botswana tripled between 1971 and 1991 from 10,861 to 29,557, and had increased by six-fold to 60,716 by 2001.

At the same time, and with particular foresight, the Botswana government also established policies to ensure the future well being of its own workers and mitigate reliance on skills importation. Heavy investments were made in national education, and the government adopted a "localization policy" that required Batswana "understudies" to be trained in corporate and institutional positions held by non-nationals. However, these measures did not nurture a sufficiently mature and skilled labor force until the 1990s, and up until this time the labor market remained open to foreign professionals.

Repressive state regimes in Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, as well as the long and bloody civil war in Angola, produced large numbers of refugees in the region during this period. As a signatory to both the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1969 Organization for African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Botswana was obligated to host many of these migrants. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), prior to the independence of Zimbabwe in 1980 and Namibia in 1990, up to 45,000 migrants were housed at the Dukwi Refugee Camp outside Francistown. However, the camp was declared a "closed" area, refugee movements were restricted, and activities were closely monitored to refute accusations that the camp was a base of operations for political terrorists. In this sense, the refugee "problem" was vigilantly isolated and controlled, rather than integrating refugees into Botswana society.

Immigration in the New Millennium

Botswana's national forecast during the late 1990s was uncompromisingly positive. Significant change had been achieved in household income levels, education, food stability, access to potable water, and primary healthcare. In addition, the UN had commended Botswana for its advancement of democratic governance, human rights, constitutional development, and gender equality. This positive outlook was reflected in the migration patterns of the Batswana population, who maintained consistently low levels of emigration and embraced an ardently patriotic national culture.

Although Batswana continued to travel outside national borders, migration data suggest that their trips were mostly short and "purpose-oriented" for shopping, visits, and holidays, with few seeking employment or extended residence abroad. Research conducted by the Southern African Migration Project (SAMP) between 1997 and 1998, in partnership with the University of Botswana, linked low levels of emigration to categorically high rates of nationalism. Of 939 respondents to a national opinion survey, 97 percent felt "proud" to be called a citizen of Botswana, and 94 percent said that being a citizen of Botswana was "a very important part" of how they viewed themselves. In a subsequent study of 226 skilled professionals, 60 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, "It really does not matter where one is a citizen as long as the person has a good quality of life."

SAMP's research also revealed that Batswana felt their home country offered a higher quality of life across a range of social indicators than neighboring South Africa, the destination for most short and long-term emigrants. Of the professionals surveyed, 65 percent felt that "overall living conditions" were better than in South Africa, and 86-95 percent felt that levels of democracy, freedom, peace, and safety were higher in Botswana. In fact, the only conditions respondents ranked "better in South Africa" were clustered around access to services and amenities such as healthcare (67 percent), schools (50 percent), and shopping (75 percent), along with economic opportunities including "decent jobs" (61 percent) and trade (58 percent).

Given the notable appeal of economic opportunities in South Africa to Batswana, SAMP surveys also assessed the "emigration potential" of skilled workers. As would be expected from the perception that access to "decent jobs" was better across the border, 41 percent of survey respondents had given "Some" or "A great deal" of thought to moving to another country. Sixty percent felt their income would be higher if they emigrated, and 57 percent felt that their prospects for professional advancement would improve. However, despite measured interest in living and working abroad, only three percent of the professionals surveyed felt they were likely to emigrate within six months, and 12 percent within the next two years, attesting to the "pull" of a high quality of life at home.

Changes to National Migration Patterns

In keeping with Botswana's positive national forecast overall, political stabilization in the region (culminating in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994) brought the voluntary repatriation of many non-nationals living in exile in Botswana, and the UNHCR estimated that only 210 refugees remained in the country by 1996. It is likely that during this time, the number of documented, legal non-nationals in Botswana was not far from the total number of immigrants overall, although the country's relatively porous and open borders could have allowed for easy crossing by the undocumented.

However, migration patterns changed dramatically in the late 1990s, with a sudden new influx of refugees from neighboring countries. The Namibian government's attempts to quash the separatist movement in the Caprivi Strip pushed an estimated 2,400 secessionist sympathizers and San Bushmen across the Botswana border between 1998 and 1999. Most of these refugees were encamped at Dukwi. During the same period, Angola saw a resurgence of violence following more than two decades of civil war, and an estimated 2,000 people sought refuge in Botswana. Combined numbers of Caprivians and Angolans, however, are still few in comparison to the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans who have arrived in Botswana in the new millennium, driven by political uncertainty, growing repression, and economic "meltdown" in Zimbabwe.

There is wild variation in estimates of how many Zimbabweans are currently in Botswana. This figure is particularly hard to arrive at given the relatively free movement between the two countries. Nationals from either country may cross the border without a visa through legal border posts, and do so regularly for shopping and social visits as well as for legitimate employment. Data on cross-border movement in 2002 showed that 533,154 persons arrived in Botswana from Zimbabwe and 510,623 departed again, with about 40 percent of all trips for the given purpose of "Visiting" or "Holiday." However, given desperate circumstances at home, thousands of Zimbabweans have shunned border entry-exit points for clandestine crossings into Botswana, often without travel documents, and media estimates of their numbers now range from 60,000 to 800,000 in total, according to the Botswana newspaper Mmegi Monitor.

Policy Responses to Change

Botswana was largely unprepared for the unprecedented volume of new immigrants, and the reported influx of Zimbabweans in particular, in terms of physical infrastructure and border controls, as well as social absorption and integration strategies. In addition, Botswana's current policy framework is at best inappropriate for the rate and the scale at which migration patterns are changing.

Immigration to Botswana is regulated by the Immigration Act of 1966, which allows unrestricted entry for nationals from most countries in the region. In policy terms, the legal status of migrants is something of a gray area, with illegality hinging on failure to travel through formal entry or exit points, lack of documentation, or participation in prohibited activities, rather than failure to comply with visa requirements or overstays. In addition, the process of applying for refugee status under the Refugee (Recognition and Control) Act CAP 25:01 of 1967 is lengthy and highly bureaucratized. It often entails detention, and consultations and interviews with the police, immigration, prison services, and Dukwi administrators before "refugee recognition" may be granted with ministerial approval. The duress of this process is likely a disincentive in itself for illegal migrants to seek formal "recognition."

Rather than substantively redrafting migration policy, however, the government has moved to fortify exclusion measures and heighten punishment for illegal migrants. Perhaps the most emblematic indication of Botswana's desire to stem the influx of undocumented migrants is in the newly constructed electric boundary fence traveling 500 kilometers along the shared border between Botswana and Zimbabwe, which is ostensibly a precaution against foot-and-mouth disease. At the same time, policing, "Operation Clean Up" raids, and repatriation efforts are on the rise. According to the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), 8,394 Zimbabweans were deported between January and March of 2004. In addition, a new amendment to the Immigration Act was introduced in March to increase punitive measures against the undocumented. Under the new bill, police officers may demand an "admission of guilt" deposit of pula 300-1,000 ($63-211) from both illegal migrants and Batswana who assist them. Conviction on charges of traveling without adequate documentation, or on assisting an undocumented person, carries a fine of pula 300-4,000 ($63-845) or imprisonment for up to four years.

Xenophobia and Discontent

The government's overwhelmingly negative response to new Zimbabwean arrivals has fostered increasing and pervasive xenophobia on the part of Batswana across the country, and this has contributed to a growing sense of impermanence and insecurity among legal and illegal migrants alike.

Many of the skilled non-nationals working in Botswana were recruited to support the country's booming growth, and a SAMP study of 125 non-Batswana professionals in 1998 showed that 70 percent felt that their quality of life was better than in their home country. At that time, 83 percent of respondents felt that their relationships with Batswana were "positive."

However, despite their contributions to Botswana's growth and development, changes to the country's stance on migration may prompt many to consider relocation once again. First, the maturation of localization policy has meant declining numbers of jobs open to foreigners, and a number of incentives once offered to non-Batswana recruits have now been eliminated, such as free education for expatriate children. Competition for jobs, as well as disputes over significantly higher wages on average for foreign workers, has heightened labor tension and compounded the perception among Batswana that foreign workers are motivated by "selfish" reasons.

In addition, animosity towards undocumented Zimbabweans in particular has fomented rising levels of xenophobia directed at non-nationals overall. A SAMP study in 2001 showed that of 781 respondents, more than 20 percent were in favor of deporting all immigrants from Botswana, and fully 71 percent supported the deportation of immigrants who were "not contributing to the economy." Further, 46 percent responded that they would act to "prevent Southern Africans" from owning businesses in their neighborhoods and 93 percent felt that non-nationals should not have the right to unlimited free speech in Botswana.

The Future of Migration Policy

Although Botswana has undoubtedly benefited from its open migration policy in the past, in the minds of many nationals, the consequences of openness today seem to outweigh its advantages. However, for the foreseeable future, Botswana is not facing the question of whether new migrants will arrive, but rather of how best to manage policing and control, protection, absorption, and integration.

Botswana currently lacks a comprehensive and timely policy approach that reflects both a national interest in controlling undocumented border crossings, and a concurrent commitment to upholding its endorsement of international protocols on displaced people. In recent statements to the press, government officials have asserted the country's sovereign right to control migration inflows, as well as to punish undocumented persons under the provisions of national law. However, xenophobia among politicians in particular devalues the worth of such assertions, with parliamentarians on record describing the Zimbabwean presence as a "nuisance" and a threat. Xenophobia voiced and propagated in the government has become tantamount to policy in the public eye, causing tension and even violence against Zimbabweans, as well as impacting negatively on foreigners from other countries currently living in Botswana.

Given recent amendments to the Immigration Act, Botswana's government may soon consider drafting new legislation altogether, and even expanding the Refugee (Recognition and Control) Act to include Zimbabweans. However, granting these recent migrants refugee status in Botswana would require some acknowledgement and naming of the current crisis in Zimbabwe. Thus far, this has not been forthcoming from any state in the region, and a policy of "silent diplomacy" towards the Mugabe regime prevails. Until this approach changes, undocumented Zimbabweans will continue to be branded "economic" rather than legitimate "political" refugees.

Given the heightened border controls and new punitive measures introduced primarily to stem the influx of undocumented Zimbabweans, it seems likely that Botswana will continue to develop a more exclusionary and restrictive approach to migration. With a declining need to encourage and promote the inward migration of skilled foreigners, coinciding with increasing levels of xenophobia among the population, the "Gem of Africa" seems set to become the exclusive domain of Batswana.


Botswana Central Statistics Office. Demographic and Tourism Statistics. Available online.

Botswana Central Statistics Office. Household Income and Expenditure Survey II 1993/4. Available online.

Botswana Central Statistics Office. Population and Housing Census. Available online.

Campbell, Eugene K. and Oucho, John O. "Changing Attitudes to Immigration and Refugee Policy in Botswana" SAMP Migration Policy Series No. 28 (Cape Town and Ontario: Idasa and Queen's University, 2003).

Daily News Online. "Imposing stiffer penalties on illegal immigrants likely to backfire" Daily News Online (March 26, 2003). Available online.

Mpofu, Fraser. "Botswana not plotting against Mugabe - Mogae" Mmegi Online (July 4-10, 2003) Available online.

Mmegi. "Attitude of Botswana/South Africa to Zimbabwean Migrants" Mmegi Online (December 12, 2003) Available online.

Oucho, John, Campbell, Eugene and Mukamaambo, Elizabeth. "Botswana: Migration Perspectives and Prospects" SAMP Migration Policy Series No. 19 (Cape Town and Ontario: Idasa and Queen's University, 2000).

Sunjic, Melita. "Botswana camp captures history of southern Africa" UNCHR News Stories (South Africa: United Nations High Commission on Refugees Regional Office, February 16, 2004). Available online.

United Nations Development Programme. Botswana Human Development Report 2000 (Gabarone: United Nations Development Programme, 2000). Available online.

United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Statistical Fact Sheet 1998: Botswana. Available online.

Van Dijk, Rijk. "Localising Anxieties: Ghanaian and Malawian Immigrants, Rising Xenophobia, and Social Capital in Botswana" Afrika-Studiecentrum Working Paper 49 (Leiden: Afrika-Studiecentrum, 2002).