Posted on December 18, 2013

Changing Patterns of Global Migration and Remittances

Phillip Connor, Pew Social Trends, December 17, 2013


Patterns of global migration and remittances have shifted in recent decades, even as both the number of immigrants and the amount of money they send home have grown, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of data from the United Nations and the World Bank.

A rising share of international migrants now lives in today’s high-income countries such as the United States and Germany, while a growing share was born in today’s middle-income nations such as India and Mexico, the analysis finds.

These shifts occurred as the total number of international migrants rose from 154 million in 1990 to 232 million in 2013–but remained steady as a 3% share of the globe’s growing population.

During this period, the U.S. remained the largest destination country by far and increased its share of the world’s migrants. One-in-five (46 million) migrants now live in the U.S., compared with slightly less than one-in-six (23 million) in 1990.

The U.S. is not the only wealthy destination country whose share of the world’s migrants has increased. All told, an estimated 160 million, or 69%, of international migrants now live in high-income countries (nations with an average per capita income of $12,616 or higher), up from 87 million, or 57%, in 1990, the Pew Research analysis finds. These high-income countries, many of them in North America and Europe, may appear increasingly attractive to modern migrants, whose principal reason for moving is to pursue economic opportunity.

Where do today’s migrants come from? Increasingly, they were born in what the World Bank designates as middle-income countries, those with per capita annual income between $1,036 and $12,615. About six-in-ten (135 million) of today’s international migrants were born in such countries, compared with fewer than half (74 million) of all migrants in 1990. Over the same period, the share of immigrants born in high- as well as low-income nations has declined.


Once they move across borders, many migrants send money, known as remittances, back to families in their countries of origin. Despite a marked dip during the 2009 global recession, the overall annual flow of such remittances has nearly tripled since 2000 and now tops $500 billion.

And according to the Pew Research analysis of World Bank data, the rise in the stock of emigrants from middle-income countries has been accompanied by a concomitant increase in the flows of remittances back to middle-income countries.


The economic importance of remittances is larger in poorer countries than in richer ones. Remittances account for 8% of the gross domestic product in low-income nations, 2% in middle-income nations and less than 1% in high-income nations, according to analysis of World Bank data. {snip}


As a Destination, the U.S. Looms Large

Despite global shifts in international migration, one constant remains: The U.S. has the world’s largest number of international migrants.

The number of immigrants in the U.S. doubled from 23 million people in 1990 to 46 million in 2013. During this time, no other country has come close to the number of foreign-born people living within its borders. For example, second-ranked Russia had about 11 million immigrants in both 1990 and 2013 (many of whom had moved within the former USSR prior to 1990). Consequently, the U.S. has bolstered its lead in the number of international migrants, doubling second-place Russia in 1990 and quadrupling it by 2013.


And the U.S. is the top recipient of migrants from about a quarter of the world’s countries. In 1990, the U.S. was the top destination of migrants born in 53 countries. In 2013, that number was about the same at 52 countries.


Even with this growth, the foreign born as a share of the total population is still considerably lower in the U.S. than in a number of other major destination nations. About 14% of the U.S. population in 2013 was foreign born, a smaller share than in Australia (28%) and Canada (21%), and significantly less than in some countries in the Persian Gulf, where the vast majorities of their populations are foreign-born workers.

In fact, the regional origins of U.S. immigrants have become more concentrated over time with a greater share born in Latin America and the Caribbean. About 47% of all migrants living in the U.S. in 1990 were from Latin American and Caribbean countries. By 2013, 55% of all foreign-born people living in the U.S. were born in the same region.