Global Migration? Actually, The World Is Staying Home

The refugee debate creates the impression of unprecedented mass migration. That image is completely incorrect. The real question, when we look at migration globally, is why there is so little of it.
A refugee child at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni

A refugee child at the Greek-Macedonian border near the village of Idomeni


Take a tape measure. Unroll the tape to about two meters (six feet) and place one end against a wall. The distance between you and the wall corresponds to the world population of about 7.3 billion people. The number of people worldwide who left their native countries in the last five years -- in other words, migrated -- takes up about one centimeter (three-eighths of an inch) of the tape measure. That number amounted to 36.5 million, or 0.5 percent of the world's population. All others, or 99.5 percent of the global population, are non-migrants, or people who were living in the same country in 2015 as in 2010. They represent the other 199 centimeters on the tape measure.

This is the sort of thing you learn when you pay a visit to Guy J. Abel, the man who can load all the world's migrants onto his computer and draw colorful circles around them. The 35-year-old Englishman is a social statistician and population researcher at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography in Vienna. Abel has developed a model to estimate and depict the actual dynamics of global migration. An examination of the results quickly shows that we have a lot of incorrect images in our heads.

"I always felt that the traditional methods of estimating global migration were rather inadequate," Abel says.

The institute is part of the new Vienna University of Economics and Business campus, next to the Vienna convention center, a group of shiny, oblique-angled new buildings that look like something architect Zaha Hadid might have designed for a colony on Mars. The Wittgenstein Center, on the second floor of building D5, is considered one of the most important research centers of its kind. Its researchers address existential questions such as these: Will there be too many people on the planet soon? (No.) Can the rich world survive the aging of society? (Yes.) Is Western Europe doomed because of its low birth rates? (No.)

Guy Abel pulls up a colored globe on his screen, the one shown below. "This is an overview of all migration movements in the last five years," he says.


Photo Gallery: Global Migration Flows


But when viewing this image, says Abel, one shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that the entire world is on the move, as the chart suggests. It merely depicts the movements of the 0.5 percent of the world population that became international migrants in the last five years. All others, the 99.5 percent, have not moved at all. In other words, the viewer must condense the colorful ball of wool and stuff it into the first centimeter of his tape measure. That's because staying put is the standard, while migration is the great exception.

Now we zoom in. We can see all migration within the last five years, in and between world regions, as defined by the United Nations: Europe, Africa, North America, South America, the Middle East, East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and Oceania. The share of the global volume of migration that affects Europe is only a fraction of the whole.

This means that even if we consider the movements recently triggered by the war in Syria, the entire European and German "refugee crisis," when viewed from a global perspective, takes place within the first few millimeters of the tape measure.

A Fraction of a Very Small Fraction

Just to be clear, a fraction of a small fraction of a very small fraction can still be a big number. We are not trying to downplay anything here. There are huge challenges faced by target countries of international migration like the United States, South Sudan, Kenya, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Germany. And, in particular, we are not downplaying the plight of refugees and economic migrants, who don't care how many or how few of them there are, because each of them is seeking a better life. There are always people behind the numbers, percentages and tenths of percentages -- lots of people.

Nevertheless, it is helpful to take a look at the globe as a whole, especially now, with immigrants to Germany and Europe being brought to a forced halt in Turkey before they can find alternative routes. Those who are unfamiliar with the true scale may perhaps see "waves" of immigrants rolling in or an "onslaught" about to take place. They see entire nations unpacking their things to set up house in Europe and Germany, provided they survive the journey.

This is why we want to address a few simple questions. Just how many people are actually on the move? And how many are going from where to where? Is it true that the numbers are constantly growing? Or are they in fact declining? Who actually counts the migrants? Who is considered a migrant and who a refugee? And are the numbers we constantly read and hear about figures that actually make sense?

"The truth," says Guy Abel, "is that the global migration dynamic has remained constant at a low level for more than half a century."

Did he say "low level?"

Turning Up the Volume

The basic problem, Abel explains, is that all migration figures come from the United Nations, which measures migration by combining the numbers of migrants and refugees from all countries. The UN defines migrants as "persons living in a country other than where they were born." The data are derived from individual countries' censuses and refugee registries.

In a recent press release, the UN announced the latest total number as follows: "The number of international migrants -- reached 244 million in 2015 for the world as a whole, an increase of 71 million, or 41 percent, compared to 2000."

244,000,000: What a huge number!

41 percent -- an increase of almost half!


First, let's take a look at the 41 percent increase. It relates to absolute numbers, which are not reasonable benchmarks here. In 2000, the UN counted 173 million migrants. That was 2.8 percent of the global population of 6.1 billion at the time. Since then, the world population has grown to 7.3 billion, so that the 244 million migrants in 2015 make up 3.3 percent of that total.

So why doesn't the UN communicate the information as follows: "Since the year 2000, the share of migrants in the world population grew by 0.5 percentage points?" Because it sounds less concerning?

Here's the situation. The UN doesn't receive enough money. Its World Food Program, for example, is radically underfunded, as are its aid campaigns for Syria. Coming from this position of need, the UN always turns up the volume when announcing its figures. Dependent as it is on money from its members to relieve its distress, the UN underpins its appeals with dramatic terms like "all-time high," "new maximum" and "record low." By doing so, it contributes significantly to the imbalance in the migration debate.

But the bigger problem lies in the number itself, 244 million. Why?

"The figure has several serious weaknesses," says Abel, and yet it is spread around the globe by hundreds of media organizations, press agencies, NGOs, politicians and even academics. Numbers like these, or their international equivalents, from which they are derived, serve as the basis for debates, studies and laws. Why? Because there is no more credible source than the UN. This widespread perception leads to phrases like these: "The world has 41 percent more migrants now than in 2000, UN reports" (Toronto Star). "UN: Number of global migrants soars to 244 million" (Newsweek). Or, conversely and especially distorting, on the website of Swiss television: "Fewer and fewer people are living in their native countries."

The number, 244 million, isn't incorrect. It just says very little about all the things you would want to know when you think about migration.

For one thing, according to the UN's definition, the 244 million correspond to the total aggregated migrant stock in the world. This means that anyone who ever left their country of birth and is still alive is part of this number. It includes the man who runs the nearest kebab shop, who has been in Germany for 20 years. It includes the Indian professor of nuclear physics, who took a job at a German university in Göttingen in the 1980s. It includes the Swedish designer who has lived in Berlin since the mid-1990s. It includes Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola. The Klitschko boxing champions. And many other examples. It even includes the author of this article, who was born in Switzerland.

Are these the people you imagine when you think of migration?

According to Abel, "244 million is a number that says nothing about how many people migrated from which country to which country, and when."

A Eurocentric Worldview

Of course, the situation is further complicated by mismatched data sets. Most countries do not compile detailed migration statistics. The UN figures include many assumptions and estimates, because the survey methods of the 200 countries included are highly variable -- and differ greatly in terms of reliability. Still, they are the best numbers we have.

The figures and tables dance across Abel's screen. His model is not easy to understand. Here's the abbreviated version: Whereas the UN measures migrant stocks, Abel estimates migrant flows over certain periods of time. A flow corresponds to the migration of at least one person to another country in a five-year time period. In other words, Abel uses UN and World Bank figures to detect changes in the total migrant stocks of about 200 countries every five years since 1960. Using algorithms, he calculates the minimum amount of migrant flows that must have taken place between all of these countries every five years to reflect the changes in migrant stocks.

Got it?

Perhaps a soccer analogy will help. Let's assume we know how many foreign players were playing for all German Bundesliga football clubs in 2010 and 2015, but we don't know how many switched from which team to which team. Guy Abel can figure it out. Right?

"It's roughly like that," says Abel. It's complicated, he adds, "but it works."

The co-author of his study, published in the American journal Science, is German population geographer Nikola Sander, 36, who also conducts research at the Wittgenstein Center. She and her colleague Ramon Bauer, 40, developed the innovative circular visualizations depicted in this article. The numbers for 2010 to 2015, on which the images are based, have only been available for a few weeks now. The UN provides the corresponding global data sets only once every five years.

"The general perception of migration suffers from a Eurocentric worldview. People believe that the entire world wants to go to Europe. But when you look at our graphics, you quickly realize that this isn't true."

In light of the European "refugee crisis," there is one important caveat: The UN data upon which Abel's calculations are based are collected in the middle of the year. In other words, the image only depicts migrant flows until July 1, 2015. Official migration statistics through the end of 2015 are not available yet, including figures for Germany.

Would the circle look significantly different if the many Syrian refugees who came to Europe and Germany since the middle of last year were taken into account?

Abel looks at his computer screen. "No," he says, pointing with the tip of a pen to the thin arrow that leads from the Middle East to Europe, which also includes the Syrian refugees. "It would be about twice as wide. That's all."

Overall Migration in Decline

What else can we learn from these circles?

The largest global migrant flows take place within individual world regions, not across continents. This is evidenced by the thickest arrows in the chart, which point from Africa to Africa, from the Middle East to the Middle East, and from East Asia to East Asia. The arrows represent the migrations of hundreds of thousands of people from places like India to Dubai or from Syria to Lebanon.

- Significantly more Europeans migrate within Europe than Africans to Europe.

- A much larger number of people migrate within the Middle East than from the Middle East to Europe.

- The largest transcontinental flow continues to move from South to North America, although it has decreased considerably compared to the period from 2005 to 2010.

- North America and Europe remain the most important target regions for international migration, although North America has a significantly smaller out-migration than Europe.

- Europe's share of the total migration volume has declined.

- Migration paths do not lead primarily from very poor to very rich countries, but rather adhere to a graduated model. "People move to countries where the economy is somewhat stronger than in their native country," says Sander. She means from Bangladesh to India or from Zimbabwe to South Africa, for example.

- East and Southeast Asia are developing from typical source regions into target regions of international migration.

- What has changed in the long retrospective view is the general direction of migration: from North-South to South-North and now, increasingly, to South-South. In earlier centuries, it was the Europeans who emigrated or colonized other parts of the world, which is just another form of migration.

- But the most surprising result of Abel's calculations is that overall global migration has been on the decline in the last five years.

On the decline?

"Significantly on the decline," says Abel.

The number of migrating migrants between 2010 and 2015 (36.5 million) is more than 8 million fewer than in the previous five-year period (45 million). The global migration rate reached an historic peak between 1990 and 1995, a time when the Iron Curtain had fallen, Afghanistan had descended into civil war and there was genocide in Rwanda. The 0.5 percent figure for the last five years is the smallest value since 1960.

Which declining flows are behind this decrease, given that Europe is supposedly being "overrun" at the moment? They are simply processes that are much bigger than what we now see at Europe's doorstep. Dubai, for instance, has lost much of its appeal, and migration from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to the economically weakening emirates has shrunk considerably. The same applies to migration to Qatar. In the last five years, migration from East Asia to North America has declined by more than half, from 3.4 to 1.6 million. Even Mexicans, now finding more jobs at home, are no longer as likely to migrate to the United States as they were before 2010. The Spanish economic crisis led to a dramatic decline in labor migration from Latin America and countries like Morocco and Romania: from 2.3 million to 120,000. Migration to and within Europe also declined significantly between the 2005-2010 and 2010-2015 periods, from 11 million to 7 million (although the difference would be less large if the available figures continued until the present).

If we look back further, it becomes apparent that the absolute number of migrant flows has grown continuously since 1960 (with the exception of the last five years). However, the share of migrants in the world population has been virtually constant for more than half a century, consistently hovering around the 0.6 percent mark every five years. "There appears to be a historic rule of thumb," says Abel, "which is that for every five-year period, six out of 1,000 people are on the move." This stability is also apparent even if one does not count those who are currently migrating, but rather all people who have been living outside their native country for any period of time, as the UN does. In that case, migrants have made up about 3 percent of the world population since 1960. This is why people who study migration are not as interested in the problem of growing migration numbers. Instead, they are more likely to address the question of why there is so little migration.

Tossing Refugees and Migrants into the Same Pot

"May I point out another problem?" Nikola Sander asks amiably. In her office, only a few doors down from Abel's office in the Wittgenstein Center, there is, of course, a giant map of the world hanging on the wall above her desk. "Unfortunately," says Sander, "the media hardly makes the distinction between refugees and migrants." The UN is partly to blame for that too, she adds.

What distinguishes a refugee from a migrant? One of them migrates voluntarily, while the other is forced to do so. However, the UN migration figures toss both categories into the same pot. Some 15 million of the 244 million UN migrants are refugees. Another problematic number is also quoted very often: 60 million. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) usually refers to 60 million "persons of concern," but this is usually simplified in the debate to mean "60 million refugees."

"This number also needs to be scrutinized more closely," says Sander. About 35 of these 60 million people, or more than half, are internally displaced persons, or refugees in their country: homeless Syrians in Syria, uprooted Afghans in Afghanistan. Their plight is usually no less severe than that of internationally migrating refugees - often it is even more serious. But because they have not crossed a national border, they are not considered refugees under the Geneva Convention. They are the kinds of internally displaced persons Germany's conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán like, because they remain in their native countries -- often enough to die there. But this doesn't prevent the agitators from exploiting their large numbers, which don't even affect them, for political gain.

The number of refugees in a narrower sense -- namely those who have left their country, fall under the provisions of the Geneva Convention and are entitled to protection as refugees -- is significantly lower. As of mid-2015 (more recent figures do not exist), the UNHCR estimated their number at 15 million worldwide.

Unfortunately, the same thing applies to refugees as to migration as a whole: The UN and aid organizations use threatening language when they announce the relevant figures. For instance, according to an announcement by the UNHCR, the number of displaced person is now at "a level not previously seen in the post-World War II era." This statement was gratefully snapped up by the media around the globe. The website of the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, for example, reads: "60 million people are fleeing worldwide, more than after World War II. Is this tragedy overwhelming mankind?"

A Vicious Circle

The relentlessly lurid expression "more than after World War II," inspired by the UNHCR, already makes no sense given that the world's population was only about 2 billion after World War II. If an estimated 60 million people were refugees in Europe alone at the time, it was already 3 percent of the world population -- almost four times as much as today. Why doesn't the UNHCR write: "The share of refugees in the world population today is less than a quarter of what it was in the period after World War II?" Isn't 60 million enough?

It's a vicious circle. The UN needs money and is constantly sounding the alarm. But its dramatizations create more fear than a willingness to help in the individual countries and the public. They also lead the paradoxical situation that actors on the left and right sides of the political spectrum use the same blustering rhetoric to talk about migration. Aid organizations and the left are fueling the fire because they want to inspire pity. Right-wing populists are sounding the same tune because they want to generate fear. It's just the truth that is hard to sell.

The truth is it's bad. It's been bad for a long time. It's even been far worse before than it is today. But by no means is it "overwhelming mankind" -- and certainly not Europe. The problem could be overcome, if only the will to do so existed.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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