MYTH: We know exactly how many people are international migrants

MYTH: We know exactly how many people are international migrants

According to the United Nations Population Division, an international migrant is someone who has been living for one year or longer in a country other than the one in which he or she was born. This means that many foreign workers and international students are counted as migrants. Additionally, the UN considers refugees and, in some cases, their descendants (such as Palestinians born in refugee camps outside of the Palestinian territories) to be international migrants. For the purposes of this interactive feature, estimates of the number of unauthorised immigrants living in various countries are also included in the total counts. On the other hand, tourists, foreign-aid workers, temporary workers employed abroad for less than year and overseas military personnel typically are not counted as migrants.

There are some 272 million migrants globally. But that figure includes undocumented migrants, who are not easily counted. In Europe for instance, the estimates of undocumented migrants range from 6 to 15 million. Also, immigration figures do not include people moving within a country. In China, for instance, at least 100 million people in search of work have moved from rural areas to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

UN DESA produces estimates of the number of international migrants globally, which are based on data provided by States. The data aren’t perfect. In countries that especially dislike migrants, like the US and Europe, numbers are often underreported. Still, the data are a very good indication of the general trends.

UN DESA estimates of foreign-born populations do not reflect immigration status or policy categories (such as students, highly skilled migrants, or refugees). Capturing such attributes is inherently difficult for several key reasons. 

First, a person’s immigration status can be fluid and change quickly, arising from circumstances and legal / policy settings. For example, many international migrants who may be described as ‘‘undocumented” or “irregular” enter countries on valid visas and then stay in contravention of one or more visa conditions. In fact, there are many paths to irregularity, such as crossing borders without authorisation, unlawfully overstaying a visa period, working in contravention of visa conditions, being born into irregularity, or remaining after a negative decision on an asylum application has been made.

Second, countries have different immigration policy settings and different ways of collecting data on migrants, which makes it difficult to establish a harmonised approach to capturing irregular migrant stocks globally. The pace of change in the migration policy arena also poses an extra dimension of complexity, as people may slip into and out of “irregularity”. Notably, there have been very few global estimates of the number of irregular migrants because of this complexity. However, this has not prevented some organisations from coming up with inflated and incorrect global estimates

In addition, migration patterns and behaviours have changed and the traditional definition of an international migrant is becoming less relevant. Circular migration is a topic of growing importance and a dimension that is difficult to measure. Circular migration is not a single event taking place at a particular point of time, but rather a series of several events happening within a specific period. Again, this type of migration is not well captured because we have yet to develop the necessary methods to measure it regularly and reliably within the data sources available. All this makes measuring migration overall much more challenging and statisticians need to adapt data collection and the methods we use to meet users’ needs.


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