Focus on Migration: Rising migration is a myth

Migrants_Sven Torfinn_Panos
Copyright: Sven Torfinn/Panos

Speed read

  • It is widely believed that globalisation has boosted long-distance migration
  • But a study in Science reports stable international migration since the 1990s
  • Migration is largely regional, so solutions must be local

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Hardly a week goes by without media coverage of the fears, in developed nations, that immigrants from poorer countries are overwhelming them. A recent story in the British newspaper The Telegraph — describing how open borders, the “ravages of globalisation”, and a welfare economy have given rise to social resentment — is just one example. [1]

Such narratives tap into the popular myth that globalisation has led to a one-way, free flow of migrants from poorer countries — making migration a political issue almost everywhere in the industrialised world.

“If migratory movements are largely regional, then solutions must be local and regional.”

Max Martin

But while political tensions are a fact, research published earlier this year in Science debunks the notion that globalisation has vastly increased migrant numbers and the distances travelled by people on the move.

The author of this research, Nikola Sander of the Vienna Institute of Demography in Austria, told New Scientist in March that “contrary to conventional wisdom, our estimate suggests a rather stable intensity of global migration since the early 1990s”. [2]

Sander and her colleague Guy Abel compiled the new figures by calculating migrant numbers over five-year blocks. They estimated global migrant flows to and from individual countries using population tables published by the UN. These data are based on census records, population registers and refugee statistics, and improve on earlier estimates that are generally based on snapshots from general census reports, they note. [3]

Their study does not indicate a continuous increase in international migratory movements over the past two decades, neither in absolute nor relative terms.

Interestingly, the work clearly shows that migration is more local and regional than widely perceived. Movements from sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, are largely within Africa, with only a small percentage moving to more developed countries. There are long-distance movements into higher income countries — so the fears expressed in the Telegraph article are not totally unfounded — but it is a small part of the migration scenario.

If migratory movements are largely regional, then solutions must be local and regional — such as arrangements to help people travel more safely, and options for money transfer, social security and migrants’ return. At the moment this approach is rare in developing countries.

A clearer understanding of how migrants contribute to the economy and better internal cultural relations could also help soften attitudes and counter the misconceptions highlighted by this research.

Achieving this will be a challenge. But research like that of Sander and Abel could be used to persuade governments to reexamine their regional migration policies.
Max Martin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex, United Kingdom, researching on climate-related migration. The views expressed are his own.


[1] Jeremy Warner, In both Britain and the US, there’s no easy answer to immigration (The Telegraph, 7 August 2014)

[2] Jon White, Rising tide of migration is a myth, say global stats (New Scientist, 27 March 2014)

[3] Guy Abel and Nikola Sander, Quantifying Global International Migration Flows (Science, 2014)