The growing numbers of migrants, with their diverse origins, profiles and causes of departure defy any simple explanation. The transnational networks of migrants seeking work are a means of fighting poverty, as well as bringing about social change and the hybridization of societies.

In 2017, there were 258 million migrants in the world, or 3.4% of the global population, representing an increase of 50 % since 2000. Migration is understood to mean all types of population movement involving a change in place of residence, whatever its cause, distance, and duration. In 2017, 65.3 million people left their home country, 21.3 million of them refugees (over half below the age of 18), forced to leave by conflicts and persecutions and protected by international law. Those not able to flee beyond their borders are considered as displaced, and continue to come under the protection of their sovereign state. As for environmental migrants, their status still remains ill-defined and they have little protection. Although there may be massive migration of workers inside states, as in China, international migration of workers is larger still. Whether legal or illegal, qualified or unqualified, men, women, or young people, permanent or temporary, these economic migrants depend on the laws of each host state.

Evolution of migrant flows, 1960-2015

Source: Guy J. Abel, International Migration Review, “Estimates of Global Bilateral Migration Flows by Gender betwe en 1960 and 2015”, 2017. 

Comment: This diagram shows more than half a century of migratory flows by major regions of departure, identifying departures for other countries in the region or for other regions of the world. The five-year time scale enables irregularities in the curves to be seen, demonstrating the sudden nature and scale of certain movements (political and economic crises, conflicts). In Africa, Europe and the ex-USSR, the intra-regional flows are more substantial, or close to the numbers of departures out of the region. In Latin America, the Caribbean, and North America, departures from the region largely dominate, as they do to a lesser extent in South East Asia. In the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East (although involving very different numbers) the disruption shown is spectacular, with departures out of the region from 1990 on the first graph and, conversely, into the region from 2000 on the second.

Contrary to preconceived ideas, there are slightly more South/South migrations than there are South / North migrations (over 85% of African migrations take place within the continent) and large groups of migrants flow from South America to North America, from Western Asia to the Gulf countries, and from the entire globe to Europe. They are based on former links (ex- colonies, diaspora, language, etc.), spatial proximity, and/or labor needs.

Migrant flows between 2010 and 2015

Source: Guy J. Abel, International Migra tion Review, “Estimates of Global Bilateral Migration Flows by Gender between 1960 and 2015”, 2017. 

Comment: Although the data are grouped by major regions (except for three countries which have been singled out: Syria, India and Mexico), this map shows the extent to which the movement of people became a generalized phenomenon over the five years from 2010 to 2015 – and this, despite the obstacles they may encounter on the way. North America experiences very substantial inflows of people from all over the globe, just as Europe does, but there are also outflows to other regions of the world and high internal migration. Europe continues to be the main destination for Africans, but internal movement is equivalent to the numbers of departures for other regions. Flows from South America, the Caribbean, and Mexico converge towards the United States, those from the Indian subcontinent and India towards the Gulf countries, and the massive exodus of Syrians primarily affects the Middle East.

Labor migration

Although the decision to migrate is an individual one, it is part of the world-wide context of growing economic inequality in a globalized market economy, as well as of demographic imbalances, poor development and political crises in postcolonial states. The combination of these factors permanently sustains the desire and need of individuals to migrate to somewhere else where they might build a future. Forming themselves into groups means that these costly and dangerous individual choices create or reinforce family, village or community channels.

Compensating for failures in development, the remittances made by migrants to their countries of origin are made possible by regular savings, and represent an amount that is three times higher than public development aid.

Migrant remittances to their country of origin, 2016

Source: World Bank,

Comment: Money transfers by migrants remain difficult to assess since they are transnational and partly escape the regular channels for money transfer because of the wish to avoid high transaction costs. The World Bank publishes a set of data annually on remittances by migrants and second-generation diasporas. By comparing the remittances received and their proportion of GDP, the map reveals their crucial importance to the poorest countries.

These international family, economic, and cultural networks help to subsidize those who have stayed at home to feed and care for themselves, and to educate children. They are also a means of spreading knowledge and skills, which are responsible for profound social changes. As both intermediaries and builders, migrants collectively take charge of providing the basic facilities that the state fails to supply. Such development nevertheless does not mean that migration decreases. On the contrary, it encourages mobility, particularly on the part of those who are most qualified.

Quota-fixing or governance?

Economic migration is a huge transnational phenomenon linking places and societies. It is at the heart of frictions opposing the free flow of non-nationals with the rigidities of territorial sovereign states. While there are no signs that mobility is about to abate, the reaction of Northern states is to recommend restriction of these migratory flows. The limitations they impose, however, create more problems than they resolve. Denial of visas, walls, coastguards, port closures, and detention camps herald the end of free circulation and complete the process, started during the 1970s, of migrants in precarious circumstances settling in societies which had thought they were there temporarily. This geographical exclusion has not only posed the question of integration but has also given rise to a flow of illegal migrants and the creation of an organized criminal activity of people smuggling. The considerable costs of controls have not noticeably lessened the flow; at best, migrants have changed their routes and are taking ever greater risks in an attempt to improve their lot and that of their family. The priority of security has opened up a way to discredit those engaged in humanitarian aid for migrants, without resolving the fears (of losing jobs, identity, security, etc.) cultivated and exploited by xenophobic populism, which is particularly targeted at the people who have been made most vulnerable by economic crises. The criminalization of mobility, accompanied by ethnicization, and cultural and religious phobia, dangerously undermines the democratic foundations of host countries and hinders any debate about mobility, internationality, and alterity.

Share of migrants in national populations, 2017

Source: United Nations, Population Division, Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2017 Revision

Comment: In 2017, the UN database estimated (based on national data and calculated estimates) the stock of international migrants (people in the country who were born abroad and, if this information was lacking, the numbers of people holding foreign citizenship) present in each country in relation to the country’s total population at the same date. This number may be underestimated, since new residents with uncertain legal status were not counted. The magnitude of the dataset shows the wide variety of situations (from 0.1% for China, Vietnam, Cuba, Indonesia, Madagascar and Myanmar, to 88% in the United Arab Emirates).

Faced with this deadlock, it is essential for all public and private actors worldwide to come together and devise common supportive measures. Despite an improvement in the knowledge and quantifying of migration, there continues to be a split between the initiatives of international organizations (International Organization for Migration, International Labor Organization, World Bank, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, etc.). Ten years separate the UN General Secretary’s Report of 2006, which underlined the necessity of constructing a migration governance framework, from the New York Declaration of 2016, which put a Global Compact for Migration on the agenda for adoption at the end of 2018.

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