Is International Migration Increasing?

Most people would find the answer to that question so obvious that they wouldn’t even bother to check the data.

According to UN data, the number of people counted as living outside their country of birth has almost doubled during the last 50 years–increasing to 191 million in 2005, the highest number ever recorded (1). But the World population has more than doubled during the same period, so international migrants still constitute just a bit less than 3% of the World’s population.

The absolute number of new international migrants has actually decreased from 41 million between 1975 and 1990 to 36 million between 1990 and 2005, implying that the growth rate of international migrants has been slowing down recently (2).

In a historical context, the current levels of international migration are not exceptional either. United States, the World’s main recipient of migrants, currently receives about 1 million migrants per year (2), which corresponds to 0.33% of its population. One hundred years ago, the corresponding rate was three times higher, around 1.0% per year (3).

So why is there a widespread perception that international migration has increased enormously during the last two decades?

One explanation is that about one third of all migrants are now going to Europe, a region which is not used to receiving migrants, but rather used to be a sending region (2). Since most migrants to Europe come from developing countries, they tend to be very visible in the street picture.

Another reason is that current migrants do not make as complete a move as previous migrants. 50 years ago, if a person moved to another continent, he cut most links with his family and country of origin, as communication and travel were much more expensive then. By necessity, he had to integrate as completely as possible into his new country. In contrast, current migrants keep very close connections to their family and country of origin. Many go abroad for just a few years to work, and then return with all their savings to their country of origin. The strong loyalty to the country of origin can also be seen from the large amounts of remittances that are sent back by the migrants.

Third, both the popular press and scientific research tend to focus on the cases where “migrantion has gone bad”, whereas the millions of stories of “migration gone good” – of people who leave their country and contribute to both their adopted and home countries through their skills, labour, taxes and remittances–tend to go largely untold (1). This gives us a highly biased perception about the magnitude and impacts of migration.

That said, the 191 million international migrants worldwide would together constitute the 5th most populous country in the World (after China, India, United States and Indonesia).

They are thus a force to be reckoned with. And they constitute a tremendous business opportunity for companies who cater to the special needs of migrants and transnational families.

Know of any stories related to the increase in international migration? Leave a reply below.

(*) Director, Institute for Advanced Development Studies, La Paz, Bolivia. The author happily receives comments at the following e-mail:

(1) UNFPA, State of the World Population 2006.
(2) United Nations (2006) “World Population Monitoring: Focusing on International Migration and Development: Report of the Secretary General“.
(3) Hatton, T. J. & J. G. Williamson (1992) “International Migration and World Development: An Historical Perspective” NBER Historical Paper No. 41.



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