In the past, estimates have placed the number of undocumented foreigners as high as 9.84 million. The Home Affairs website, for example, cites a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) which estimates that the number of undocumented foreigners could be as many as 4.1 million. And it was only weeks ago when Medecins Sans Frontires (MSF) claimed that three million Zimbabweans were in South Africa.
"That’s just impossible," said senior researcher Tara Polzer of the University of Witwatersrand Forced Migration Programme.
"We don’t have a basis for that kind of hard statistics for making that kind of estimate. What we do have is various kinds of logical extrapolations and the more extreme estimates of three million, five million, 10 million are definitely way off logic," said Polzer.
Using census data and rough estimates, Polzer explained that of the 12 million Zimbabwean population, only a quarter were adults and those who lived outside their own country were also in other African countries bordering Zimbabwe as well as Europe and the United States.
Not all Zimbabweans in South Africa
"There are only, maybe, three million adult male Zimbabweans in the whole world. They’re not all going to be here [in South Africa]," she said.
"There are actually some people who live in Zimbabwe."
Despite this, high estimates continue to be used.
"I think everyone likes it because it's been around for a long time and people assume it's true because it's been repeated so often," said Polzer.
However, high estimates can have serious, negative policy repercussions. While an organisation such as MSF might use a high estimate because they want to call attention to a problem they perceive as crisis, local government officials have used it as a rationale for apathy.
A recent study by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE) surveyed 32 top local government officials in Johannesburg and found their perception of the presence of foreigners diverged from the reality.
"Their over-estimates of the number of foreigners in the city average out at 2.5 million (in a population officially estimated at 3.9 million in total), of which 86% are believed to be non-legal," read the study.
"This perception produces feelings of helplessness and desperation among officials," concluded the CDE which estimates the number of foreigners in Johannesburg to be only between 500 000 to 550 000.
"You’d think that if it was a large volume of people there’d be a lot of pressure to do something about it but it seems to work the other way around," said Polzer.
"I think certain government officials like it because it’s an excuse not to do anything because it's too big of a problem."
"People just latch onto these numbers - including officials who are supposed to be using these numbers to make rational planning decisions. They just latch onto them without any questioning of where do these numbers come from," said Polzer.
No way of knowing
Home Affairs Deputy Director General for Immigration Services Jackie MacKay expressed surprise that his department's website cited a study on undocumented migrants.
However, he maintained that home affairs could not guess how many undocumented migrants were in the country.
"If they're not documented then there's no way for us to know they exist or not," said MacKay.
MacKay said that home affairs did know how many were applying for political asylum, and that between 90% to 97% were being denied.
It was for this reason that the department announced the implementation of the “special dispensation” for Zimbabweans in April. The special dispensation would provide a temporary permit for Zimbabweans who did not qualify for asylum or work permits.
"There was a huge gap," said MacKay, between those applying for asylum and those being granted it.
The special dispensation has since been sent to Cabinet for deliberation. Home affairs spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa was adamant that the department was not backing away from the permit's implementation.
"The minister sent the dispensation to Cabinet, to inform it of the nature, scope and implications of the decision," said Mamoepa.
On Thursday, UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Deputy Representative Sergio Calle-Norena said he had had a meeting with home affairs officials the previous day and was told that Cabinet had found the special dispensation to be "acceptable".
"But nothing is finalised," cautioned Calle-Norena.
This was denied by home affairs, as both MacKay and spokesperson Cleo Mosano maintained that Cabinet had not yet discussed the special dispensation.
The issue of whether Zimbabweans entering the country are refugees or economic migrants is a controversial one. Under international law, economic deprivation is not a rationale for the granting of political asylum. Some Zimbabweans apply for political asylum because they want to formalise their status, not because they are fleeing political persecution. However, MSF has attacked this idea, saying that Zimbabwe's economic situation is so dire, people who take huge risks to cross the border are not doing so by choice.
"Do you really think an 'economic migrant' comes to South Africa [by choice]? They don't come here for a better life, they come here to survive."
One solution which has been flighted has is that of refugee camps. Under South Africa's refugee law, the government could-in an extreme situation-construct refugee camps. This idea however does not find support amongst many experts.
"Camps are really horrible places," said Polzer.
"They’re very common but they go against international law, and they’re very much against the South African Constitution.
"They’re also ridiculously expensive, so while they might look like an attractive short-term solution, and they might look like an attractive solution for the South African public...they’re actually not a solution to anything," said Polzer.
UNHCR regional representative for Southern Africa, Sanda Kimbimbi, has said that refugee camps were not a practical option. Since so many Zimbabweans come into the country to find employment they would not be willing to stay in a place where they could not work.
"It is a very positive and progressive policy of SA not to have camps for asylum seekers or refugees - indeed this is much more progressive than many European countries which now do hold asylum seekers in detention centres until their claims are adjudicated.
"South Africa should decide on which policies are appropriate in terms of its own regional history and interests and its own constitutional principles," said Polzer.