Migration: how many people are on the move around the world?

The mass movement of people is arguably the biggest story of our time. How do we define the different types of migrant, how many are there and is the current crisis really an unprecedented problem?

Migrants, expats, asylum seekers, refugees, IDPs – what are the differences?

These are loaded words because they often suggest a backstory or motive that may be inaccurate.

According to the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, the difference between refugees and asylum seekers is clear. An asylum seeker has left their country and is seeking protection from persecution. A refugee has already received such protection.

Refugees have the right to international protection while seeking asylum is a human right, which means everyone should be allowed to enter another country to seek asylum. Internally displaced people (IDPs) are essentially on the run in their own country: putative refugees who have not been able or willing to cross an international border.

When it comes to migrants, definitions are far woollier. Some presume a migrant is on the move to seek a better life. But if that person is leaving the penury and starvation of a dustbowl farm in the Sahel in order to survive,, are they a migrant or a refugee?

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) therefore defines a migrant as any person who is moving or has moved across an international border or within a state regardless of legal status, whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary, what the causes for the movement are, and what the length of the stay is.

Expatriate is a weakly defined term that essentially means anyone living outside their native country. In practice, expat has come to mean a migrant from a rich country.

How many of each are there?

We are now witnessing the highest levels of movement on record. About 258 million people, or one in every 30, were living outside their country of birth in 2017.

That is both a record high – there were 173 million in 2000 – and an alarmingly volatile figure: a 2003 projection anticipated that by 2050, there would be up to 230 million international migrants. The latest revised projection is that there will be 405 million international migrants by 2050.


Even those figures, however, fail to capture the full reality. There were 25.9 million refugees and asylum seekers in mid-2017. But registered refugees represent only a fraction of all those forced to leave their homes for reasons spanning from war to environmental crisis. In total, at least 66 million people globally are experiencing forced displacement – approximately 40.3 million of whom are IDPs.

As for expats, estimates vary wildly, depending on definition. The state department reckons 9 million Americans live overseas. About 5 million Britons are thought to do so.

Finally, there are 10 million people who are stateless, with no citizenship at all.

Which countries produce – and which receive – the most migrants?

According to the IOM, the US, Germany, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the UK were the top five destinations for migrants in 2015. The US has about 46 million foreign-born residents, Germany about 12 million.

India, Mexico, Russia, China and Bangladesh were the top five origin countries. Nearly half of all international migrants came from Asia, although it is still far more common for Asians and Africans to move within their own continent than to settle further afield.

And which countries take and produce the most refugees?

The US has historically resettled more refugees than all other countries in the world combined, though in recent years, its intake has slowed. In 2016, it took in 85,000 refugees. That same year, the then-president, Barack Obama, committed to resettling 110,000 refugees in the 2017 fiscal year, a 57% increase from 2015 numbers.

Later in 2017, however, the new president, Donald Trump, slashed the cap to 45,000. According to the International Rescue Committee, the US will only resettle 21,292 refugees in the current fiscal year.

By contrast, some of the world’s poorer and often less stable countries – such as Jordan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Uganda – are now the long-term hosts to the world’s largest populations of refugees.

Turkey is currently the leading host of refugees, with 3.5 million, followed by Uganda and Pakistan, which both host about 1.4 million, according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

In all, 57% of refugees come from just three countries: Syria (6.3 million) Afghanistan (2.4 million) and South Sudan (2.3 million). Meanwhile, Colombia hosts the greatest number of internally displaced people – 7.6 million as of 2017.]

But many refugees slip through the gaps when attempts at record-keeping take place. For example, official figures usually exclude Palestinian refugees because they don’t fall into the specific mandate of UN refugees. A separate agreement was reached on their behalf when the 1951 refugee convention was drawn up, specifically to try to avoid what has nevertheless come to pass: a permanent acceptance of their displacement. The number of Palestinian refugees varies depending on the source but there are reckoned to be between 5.3 million and 6.5 million – around one in three of all refugees worldwide. The US last month announced it was cutting all funding to the main Palestinian refugee programme.


How long do people remain refugees and IDPs?

Not only are the numbers of refugees and migrants underestimated but so too is the chronic length of time refugees remain displaced in camps and so-called “temporary” situations.

There are still Palestinian refugees forced from their country in 1948 living in camps in Syria, Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees who have been living in camps in Sudan since the mid-1960s, Afghan refugees who have been in camps in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion in 1979. The list goes on.

Moreover, many of the countries from which large numbers of people are forced to flee conflict – such as Syria, South Sudan, Iraq and Yemen – are also host to very large internally displaced populations.

“Politically, Europe had a panic in 2015 and 2016 about the scale of movement of people to a whole continent, and [in] particular, to rich ones,” said Steve Valdez-Symonds, the director of refugee and migrants rights at Amnesty.

“But that scale of movement doesn’t match the move from South Sudan to Uganda less than a year later and doesn’t far exceed what has even more recently happened across Myanmar/Bangladesh border, or in Venezuela where large numbers of people are moving to Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and other countries in that region.”

What about the political response?

Migration is arguably politically less acceptable than at any point since the end of the second world war. The anti-immigration response of governments across Europe, and in American and Australia has sent quite clear signs to some of those frontline countries that they can build walls and force back those seeking safe havens.

“The last few years have seen quite threatening movements by countries that had offered refugees a relative degree of safety,” said Valdez-Symonds. “Of Kenya towards its refugee Somali populations, for example, and of Pakistan towards its Afghan refugees.”

There is an additional complication involving those fleeing environmental disasters, such as flooding or desertification. The 1951 convention doesn’t define these people as refugees but, as Bill Frelick, Human Rights Watch’s refugee rights programme director, says: “If someone’s life is in danger, it really shouldn’t matter if it’s because of a gun or a landslide or earthquake.”

Are any countries holding their heads up in this maelstrom? Sadly, experts say not. “I don’t know that anyone has it right,” said Valdez-Symonds. “Canada has a very large and, in many ways, a very good resettlement programme for refugees. But for those who seek asylum across Canada’s borders, its response to those people is not all that good: it has major issues of long-term use of detention centres for those crossing its borders.”

Frelick said: “I don’t know of any country I can point to and say: ‘This place has got it right.’ You can say some aspects are far better than other places. The UK can probably still hold itself up as a comparatively better place for resettlement than many others. But our response to asylum seekers is not especially healthy and our response has generally deteriorated over time.”


Where does trafficking fit in?

Political and public hostility to migration has resulted in a dramatic reduction in legal routes to migration in the past 20 years. This has encouraged a burgeoning business in illegal people trafficking, now reckoned to be worth more than $150bn each year.

Principal areas of activity are from south to north in the Americas (there are an estimated 3m illegal entries into the US each year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime); from Africa and the Middle East into Europe; and from south Asia west to the Gulf and Europe beyond.

Death is common. According to the IOM’s missing migrants project, almost 30,000 people have died in transit over the past five years, with the Mediterranean, north Africa and central America particularly deadly.

What next?

The UN is to formally agree a new global compact on migration in Marrakech this December, following 18 months of negotiations. Protagonists say the deal promises a better, more coordinated approach to migration, though efforts have been damaged by the US pulling out of the talks halfway through.

Further reading

World migration report

UN migration trends

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (fiction)

Amnesty International


Amelia Hill

The GuardianTramp

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