Worldwide migration: a constant factor

Marcus Roberts
1 April 2014
Reproduced with Permission

In many countries, migration is a hot topic. For example, it perennially comes up in Australia as governments and approaches change. The debate about illegal immigrants in the USA is still to be settled (or indeed confronted?) While in the UK, there were plans to make an anti-tourist campaign in Romania and Bulgaria to keep migrants from those countries away. And of course, in many countries, migration is the only thing keeping populations growing as natural growth is non-existent (see for example Western Europe). Now, there is information coming out from the Vienna Institute of Demography about the scale of migration worldwide. It takes account of newly harmonised data provided by the UN (including refugees) that overcomes the previous lack of standardised data provided by individual countries. The methodology is explained by Nikola Sander who compiled the figures:

"We've produce the first estimates of global migration flows showing movement of people over fixed time periods from one country to another. We've done this for 196 countries. In the past we've chiefly just had a static measure of people living outside their country of birth. The lack of standardised measures had meant that migration to and from a given country was typically viewed in isolation. Hence it has been difficult for researchers, the media and the public to develop a sense of global patterns and trends."

For a start, for those who are visual learners and like bright colours, take a look at this infographic that represents the major migration flows in the world. As for the numbers themselves, the New Scientist reports that the rate of migration overall has remained pretty steady over the last 15 years. In each of the three five year tranches from 1995-2010, the number of people changing their country of residence has stayed at around six per thousand. The level was slightly higher in 1990-1995, probably due to conflicts during that time. Unsurprisingly perhaps, much migration remains regional rather than global. Migrants from sub-Sahara Africa remain predominantly within the African continent. While the largest flow of people is from south Asia to west Asia: workers migrating from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to the oil-rich Gulf countries. The regional movements can be seen in the visual presentation.

So while migration continues to be a sensitive issue for so many around the world, overall the percentage of us moving countries seems to be constant (less than 1% of the global population in any 5 year period). Obviously wordwide migration would dramatically increase in times of large scale war, God forbid, and the relative peace of the last 20 years has helped to keep the numbers of migrants constant. Of course, looking at the data at a global perspective does tend to underestimate the difficulty that individual countries face when faced with potentially large scale migration. While young migrant workers can be a boon for their new country's economy, there is no doubt that social problems can arise when a nation opens its borders.