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Global Migration's Rapid Rise

The number of global migrants is growing slightly faster than the world’s population, with 165 million more of them than in 1960. And as their numbers have risen, their routes have changed

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Global Migration's Rapid Rise

Today, more people worldwide live outside their birth countries than ever before—244 million in 2015, triple the total in 1960. To put that in perspective, if international migrants were a nation of their own, they would make up the world’s fifth-largest country, just behind Indonesia in terms of population. But of course, migrants are not all in one place, and there have been marked changes in their origins and destinations over the past two decades. A growing proportion lives in the world’s richest nations, and a growing proportion was born in middle-income countries.

When it comes to migration, the United States stands apart from all other nations. It is home to a rising share of the world’s migrants and houses more of them than any other country: 45 million people born elsewhere now reside in the U.S. In particular, the Mexican-born population in the U.S. now represents the largest single country-to-country migration in the world, though migrants from that nation and others in Latin America recently were eclipsed by migrants from Asia among new arrivals.

Throughout history, international migrants have relocated in search of economic and educational gains for themselves, a better life for their children, and, in some cases, political or religious freedom. World crises from weather to war also play a part in stimulating waves of movement from one country to another.

But in today’s world, migrants’ decisions to move also are being fueled by freer trade and the economic aspirations of a growing global middle class. Information about desirable routes and destinations travels faster now. And, once relocated, it is easier than ever for migrants to stay in touch with family, send money, or visit, using more widely available technology and relatively cheap transportation.

Sending and destination countries compete for these migrants in many ways too, with the flow of people and resources taking on the features of a more open marketplace. Destination countries are jousting in the global market for the most highly skilled migrants. Sending nations seek to maintain ties to their diasporas by offering political and economic opportunities to invest in the home country. They also keep a close eye on the money that migrants send home, which rose to a record $601 billion last year. These remittances represent more than 20 percent of GDP in some developing nations, such as Tajikistan and Haiti, according to World Bank figures. And today, many more people are permitted to be dual citizens as nations seek to hold on to their most talented citizens.

Both for nations receiving and losing people, migration can cause significant social and political tension, as individuals in those countries express concern about jobs, social services, and cultural identity. At the same time, analysts see ways that migration can offer many benefits to nations in terms of balancing age and labor force needs, and expanding education, economic integration, and cultural sharing. Much of the public and political debates over migration policies center on these inherent tensions.

The World Picture

The number of global migrants is increasing slightly faster than the world’s population: They represent 3.3 percent of all people today, compared with 2.6 percent in 1960, according to United Nations statistics. Numerically, there are 165 million more global migrants today than in 1960, and as their numbers have risen, their routes have changed.

Nearly 7 in 10 international migrants (69 percent in 2013) live in the highest-income nations, mainly the U.S., Canada, and European countries. In 1990, fewer than 6 in 10 did (57 percent). The total in wealthy nations rose to 160 million in 2013 from 87 million in 1990.

Destinations that have become more popular include not only well-off North America and parts of Europe, but also oil-producing nations in the Middle East that have attracted Asian and other migrants on employment visas. (Some sending countries, though, have suspended or ended their labor migration programs to some Middle Eastern countries, citing abusive practices.) Among the 10 nations with the largest number of international migrants, four are new since 1990: Australia, Spain, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.

Among sending countries, middle-income nations such as China and India account for a growing share of world migrants. About 6 in 10 of today’s international migrants were born in middle-income countries (58 percent in 2013), up from about half (48 percent) in 1990. The share born in both low- and high-income nations declined.

Among the 10 nations with the largest number of international migrants, four are new since 1990: Australia, Spain, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom.

Populations are growing in middle-income nations—those with per capita annual income of $1,036 to $12,615 in 2013, according to the World Bank definition—but the growth rate of emigrants from those nations is rising even more. Free-trade agreements between middle-income and high-income nations have facilitated some of this migration. As the world’s middle-class population has grown, so have its marketable skills and aspirations. Middle-income migrants can afford to move, see opportunity in foreign countries, and often have education levels that make them competitive in their destinations’ job markets.

India is the greatest source of emigrants, with 15.6 million in 2015. Its diaspora has more than doubled in size since 1990, as have those of some other middle-income nations among the top sending countries. These include Mexico, with 12.3 million emigrants; China, with 9.5 million; and the Philippines, with 5.3 million. The Philippines joined this list since 1990, powered by an exodus of labor migrants to work worldwide as nurses, sailors, and domestic workers, as well as in other jobs. The U.S. is the top foreign destination for China, Mexico, and the Philippines, and one of the top three for India.

Due to the conflict within its borders, Syria in 2015 became the world’s ninth-ranked sending country, with about 5 million people born there but now living in another country. Many have tried to make their way to Europe, helping to fuel a sharp rise in refugees and adding to concerns about European security. In 2015, the agency that coordinates border security for the European Union reported more than 1.8 million apprehensions of illegal migrants at land and sea borders, up from about 100,000 in 2013. Half the 2015 apprehensions were of migrants—largely Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis—who took the Eastern Mediterranean sea route from Turkey to Greece. Worldwide, the U.N. reported an estimated 15.1 million refugees in mid-2015, the highest number in two decades.

The United States

Despite changes in the routes and origins of world migrants, the U.S. retains its distinction as the largest migrant destination, home to 1 in 5, according to United Nations data. Immigration has been the major driver of U.S. population growth in the past half-century, and Pew Research Center projections indicate that it will continue to drive the nation’s growth over the next 50 years, if current trends hold.

The migrant population, 14 percent of the U.S. total, is projected to grow to 18 percent by 2065, surpassing the historic high of 15 percent that was a result of the late 19th-century wave of European immigration. Although the U.S. is often described as a nation of immigrants, the foreign-born share of its population is projected to remain lower than that of peer nations such as Australia (28 percent), Canada (22 percent), and New Zealand (23 percent).

As is true worldwide, Europe is less of a source region for the U.S. than it was in years past. Europeans represented 9 in 10 new U.S. migrants a century ago but are only 1 in 10 today. Most of today’s U.S. migrants come from Asia and Latin America, both regions in which emigration has grown in recent decades.

One flashpoint of U.S. policy is the nation’s 11 million unauthorized migrants. About a quarter of U.S. migrants are unauthorized, because they either crossed the border illegally or overstayed their permission to be in the country. The number rose rapidly in the 1990s and early 2000s before dropping during the recent recession and then leveling off, according to Pew Research Center estimates.

Despite that overall stability, there has been a recent surge in the number of Central American children who crossed illegally into the country on their own. Though a small number compared with the millions of immigrants overall, there have been more than 125,000 apprehensions since October 2013 of unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico. Many came from areas beset by violence, and some said they heard rumors that children arriving without their parents would not be deported from the U.S.

Proposals to limit immigration or to check its influence—whether by building a border wall, blocking migration from Syria, or monitoring migrant communities—have featured prominently in the 2016 U.S. election campaign. Despite continued political tension, American attitudes about international migrants have become more approving as the population has grown more diverse by race, ethnic group, and birthplace. Favorable views of immigrants have risen most sharply among young adults. Public attitudes about migrants overall have grown more positive since the 1990s, according to Pew Research Center surveys. In 2016, 59 percent of U.S. adults say that migrants today “strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents,” while 33 percent say they are “a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care.” Twenty years ago, opinion consistently ran in the other direction.


The U.S. is the top recipient of migrants from about a quarter of the world’s countries, most prominently Mexico. Nearly all Mexican emigrants live in the U.S., where they constitute the largest migrant population in the world from a single origin country to a single destination country: 11.7 million in 2014, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of census data. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. far outnumber the next-largest groups, Chinese (2.5 million) and Indians (2.2 million).

The Mexican-born population in the U.S. grew quite slowly until the 1970s. A large share of Mexican migrants came only temporarily for work, often in agriculture, and returned home to their families in the off-season. Spurred by economics, legislation, and other forces, Mexican migration—much of it unauthorized—rose sharply in the 1980s and 1990s but declined over the past decade. In fact, over the past few years, the Pew Research Center has documented a slow net loss of Mexicans, as more depart for home than arrive in the U.S. Migration from Mexico is unlikely to return to its previous peak.

What happened? The U.S. recession weakened the job market, especially in the construction industry, which was an important source of employment for Mexican migrants. U.S. border enforcement tightened, and deportations rose to record levels. Illegal border crossings became increasingly dangerous. Also, Mexico’s population has a shrinking share of young adults—the most likely group to migrate—because of a long-term decline in birthrates. For those who do migrate, the share going to the U.S. has declined somewhat, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of Mexican government survey data.

There are additional reasons to conclude that high levels of Mexican migration will not recur. Pew Research Center survey data shows that Mexicans are less likely now than a decade ago to report having family or friends in the U.S. with whom they keep in touch. Although half of Mexicans still say those who move to the U.S. have a better life than they had in Mexico, a growing share—now a third—says life in the U.S. and life in Mexico are the same. (The share saying they would move to the U.S. if they could—about a third—has not changed.)

Though Mexican immigration declined, the U.S. remains popular with new migrants from Asia, to the point that people from Asia surpassed those from Latin America among new U.S. immigrants in the past five years. Many arrive on high-skilled worker visas, and they make up the bulk of foreign students in the U.S. If current trends continue, Asians will outnumber Hispanics among all U.S. immigrants in four decades, according to Pew Research Center projections.

These changes will alter the profile of the nation’s immigrant population. U.S. migrants overall are more likely than the U.S.-born to hold advanced degrees, and that is even more true for Asian immigrants. U.S. migrants also are less likely to have finished high school, but Asian migrants are somewhat more likely than others to hold a high school diploma (though less likely than the U.S.-born). In part because of their high share of advanced degrees, Asian immigrants as a group have higher median household incomes than other immigrants or the U.S.-born.

In Pew Research Center surveys of Asian and Hispanic immigrants, their stated reasons for coming are linked to where they come from. Most Hispanic immigrants say they moved to the U.S. for economic reasons. Asian immigrants cite family, education, and, to a lesser extent, economic reasons. Both groups rate the U.S. more highly than their home countries in terms of opportunities to get ahead, treatment of the poor, and conditions for raising children. They are negative or ambivalent about whether moral values and family ties are stronger in the U.S. or in their home countries. But both groups are very likely to say that if they had a chance to do it again, they would choose to migrate to the U.S.

However, it’s a mistake to generalize too much about the Hispanic and Asian migrant communities—why they come to the U.S., the education and skills they bring with them, and the challenges or opportunities they face in becoming a part of American society. By and large, the diversity within these two populations can be as great as the diversity of the nation overall.

A More Connected World?

Accompanying the increase in migration worldwide in recent decades are shrinking barriers to communication and transportation that facilitate the concept of porous borders. Destination and origin countries are adjusting their policies in response to greater migration. There is increased acceptance of dual citizenship, with perhaps half of all nations embracing or tolerating it.

As global competition for skilled migrants heats up, some destination countries are rewriting visa policies. Canada, which already favors skilled migrants, implemented the Express Entry program last year to put highly skilled migrants on a fast track to permanent immigration status. The program was modeled on similar efforts in New Zealand and Australia. The European Union has been working to overhaul its Blue Card visa program for skilled non-EU migrants, launched in 2009.

A growing number of sending countries are expanding or developing their “diaspora engagement strategies.” One important goal is to encourage their emigrants to invest in their home countries. An increasing number of nations allow their citizens abroad to vote, and some even set up voting stations in destination countries.

Money is an important motivator. Total remittances that migrants send home are more than three times the amount of foreign aid to developing nations. Remittances roughly tripled since 2000, according to World Bank figures, and the increase to middle-income nations has been more rapid than average.

But even as sending countries try to keep their emigrants connected, other forces are at work to tighten the affiliations of migrant families to their new homes. Just compare the language used by migrants with that spoken by their children and later generations. Among recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants to the United States, most say they cannot carry on a conversation very well in English. But among later generations—Asians and Hispanics born in the U.S.—most have difficulty carrying on a conversation in their parents’ or earlier ancestors’ native tongues, according to Pew Research Center surveys.

Another measure of social integration displays a similar generational pattern. Only 30 percent of Asian immigrants in the U.S. say they think of themselves as a “typical American.” But among Asians born in the U.S.—the second or later generations—about two-thirds describe themselves this way. Despite the ease of transcending borders these days, it seems that ties to home countries fade across the generations.

Looking forward, it would be no surprise if the number of international migrants continues to grow as the world population increases. Beyond that, it is a challenge to predict whether today’s cross-border patterns will hold. Among the issues that will affect global migration are the continued appeal of high-income nations as destinations for migrants; the price of oil, which may affect the lure of petroleum-exporting nations; and Europe’s tightening borders.

Migration also may arise from places and to places that we cannot foresee. Other countries may succumb to internal conflict. Technologies such as smartphones, social media, and GPSs may help alter migration routes, as may climate change. And Africa, with its high fertility rates and low levels of per capita income, may emerge as a more prominent sending region.

These questions remind us that migration is not a free-standing phenomenon. It is tied inextricably to wider forces: economics, political stability, policy decisions, and climate change, among others. As these forces change, so will the volume and direction of people.


Michael Dimock is president of the Pew Research Center, which studies public attitudes, opinions and behaviors, demographic changes, and trends throughout the world.

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Michael Dimock is president of the Pew Research Center, which studies public attitudes, opinions and behaviors, demographic changes, and trends throughout the world.

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