232 Million People Left Their Countries for New Ones—Where Did They Go?

More than 3 percent of people on earth have migrated, but surprisingly, they didn’t all go to rich countries.
A map inside a Serbian police station depicts the routes migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere use to cross the Serbian-Macedonian border. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

The United Nations recently released new data showing that 232 million people, or 3.2 percent of the world’s population, live outside of their countries of birth. This global diaspora has big implications as countries try to balance growth with unease over outsiders. So where are all of these people anyway? And are they helping or hurting their new homes?  

Where do the world’s migrants go?

The top destination for migrants may come as no surprise: The UN data show that the United States claims the top spot, with 45 million people born overseas. The Russian Federation came in a distant second, with 11 million people, while Western European countries, along with Canada and Australia, all held top 10 spots. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates took fourth and fifth places, respectively, because they’ve relied on large populations of South Asian migrants to meet their demand for affordable construction labor.

Do most migrants go from poor countries to rich countries?

No. This may be one of the biggest surprises from the UN data. The number of people living in developing countries who were also born in a developing country is about the same as the number of people from developing countries who now live in developed ones. This so-called “South-South” migration partly reflects new economic opportunities in developing countries and stagnating growth in the rich world, but that’s not the whole picture. Many migrants simply find it easier to move to developing countries. This may be because of more relaxed immigration laws, family and social networks that facilitate the move, or ordinary geographic proximity. Another large contributor to South-South movement is conflict, as over 2 million Syrian refugees in Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have recently made clear.

What is the impact of all this migration?

It’s not clear, but it’s probably good. Reliable data on migration are hard to come by, and its impact is even more obscure. Much migration is illegal, making surveys unreliable, and it’s hard to quantify the impact of temporary migrants. However, many economists think migration generally improves global economic well-being. Michael Clemens at the Center for Global Development thinks that eliminating all barriers to migration could spark global gains in GDP of 20-60 percent, dwarfing not only rich world aid contributions, but also the potential gains from eliminating all import tariffs. Further, the OECD released a report in June that shows a positive net fiscal impact of immigration on most destination countries. In the United States, this impact was $11,000. Global migration is huge, and so is its potential. 


This post is part of a collaboration between The Atlantic and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

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