Listen to this article:

Global migration in 6 charts 

The pandemic changed the game. Here’s what international migration looks like in 2024.

Humans have been leaving their homes and migrating to different countries or continents for millennia. 

Why do people migrate, leaving behind community ties, the ease of living and working in one’s own country, their language, their culture, wealth, property, and often, their families? Sometimes this move is caused by a push: conflict, famine or persecution might drive people to a new location. Other times it’s a pull — when people move for better economic prospects or quality of life. 

The vast majority of migrants — over 80% — move in search of opportunities in the destination country, according to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2023.

Of the 184 million migrants worldwide, 37 million are refugees — people who have sought asylum in another country because of persecution, armed conflict or violence in their home countries. Global conflict over the last decade has displaced millions of people from their homes — most notably in Syria, Ukraine, Palestine, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

However, migrants can’t always be slotted neatly into one of two categories of economic migrants or refugees. “In fact, some people move for a combination of reasons, blurring the strict distinction between refugees and economic migrants,” states the World Development Report 2023. 

The total number of international migrants worldwide reached its peak in 2019, at 281 million, but has since fallen to 184 million, reflecting the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. With travel restrictions, economic chaos, and the health crisis it posed, the pandemic has been one of the biggest disruptors of international migration in recent years. 

Where immigrants are going

Economic opportunity 

Does economic migration always flow from low-income countries to high-income countries? Not necessarily. There is no simple pattern indicating the flow of people, and many countries are both countries of origin and countries of destination at the same time. 

For instance, the U.K. is home to 3.5 million immigrants, but is also the country of origin for 4.7 million emigrants. Nigeria is home to 1.3 million immigrants, but is also the origin for 1.7 million emigrants. 

Migrants and refugees live in countries representing all income levels: 43% live in low-and-middle-income countries, 40% live in high-income OECD countries, and 17% live in member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Nearly all those who move to GCC countries do so for better economic opportunities. GCC countries do not host many refugees, and so nearly 100% of the 31 million migrants living in these countries are economic migrants. 

High-income countries have a 1:7 split between refugees and economic migrants, and low-and-middle-income countries have the highest ratio of refugees to economic migrants, at roughly 1:2. Since 1960, the share of immigrants and naturalized citizens in high-income countries’ population has tripled.

Foreign-born share of population over time

There isn’t a clear divide between countries of origin and countries of destination, but out of a possible 40,000 combinations, immigration is concentrated across 150 origin- and destination-country pairs called “corridors.” These corridors accounted for 65% of all migration in 1970, though the figure had dropped to 50% by 2020. Some of the most frequently undertaken migration journeys today include: Mexico to the United States; India to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia; India and China to the United States; back and forth between Kazakhstan and Russia; Bangladesh to India; and the Philippines to the United States.

Biggest losses and gains

For most countries, emigrants constitute a small fraction of the total population. The median emigration rate across all countries is 7%. Some of the highest emigration rates are in Small Island Developing States — island nations in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and Caribbean Sea — where up to 25% of people have left in search of better economic opportunities. Eastern European countries also have relatively high emigration rates of 15%, largely with the destination of Western Europe. 

In terms of absolute numbers, most migrants head to the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Germany and France. Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom are also popular destination countries, with large numbers of naturalized migrants. 

GCC countries have the highest share of immigrant populations, at a whopping 88%. Second are high-income OECD countries with immigrants making up 5% to 15% of the population.

People looking to move internationally generally target a place that is at least as economically sound as their current location. Migrants from low-income countries move to other low-income countries, middle-income countries and high-income countries. Migrants from middle-income countries move to other middle-income and high-income countries. And migrants from high-income countries tend to move mostly to other high-income countries. 

While economic migration originates from — and ends in — a wide range of countries, when it comes to refugees, a handful of countries make up the bulk of originators. Due to recent conflicts, three countries — Ukraine, Syria and Afghanistan — accounted for 52% of all refugees in October 2023

Climate change migration 

Although economic opportunities and conflict have traditionally been the biggest drivers of migration, there is now a third factor pushing people away from their homes. Extreme weather events and climate change effects are emerging as the third most significant driver of migration. 

About 3.5 billion people — 40% of the world population — live in places highly vulnerable to climate change. In the last 15 years, sudden-onset weather events such as tropical cyclones and floods displaced 300 million people. The effects were felt most strongly in Asian countries. 

Slow-onset climate impacts such as temperature shifts, changes in precipitation patterns, sea level rise and ocean warming are also exacerbating habitability issues and the economic productivity of vulnerable regions. It is hard to isolate and quantify climate migration, because climate issues worsen other factors affecting migration figures, such as poverty levels, economic activity, resource scarcity, and political instability. 

So far, most climate-related migration has occurred internally. Disasters, including monsoon flooding in Pakistan and drought in Somalia, triggered 32.6 million new internal displacements in 2022. That number was 41% higher than the annual average of the past decade, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC).

People internally displaced by disaster, 2013-2022

But as we continue to fail to halt the rise of global temperatures, this could change. Global temperatures have already reached 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and could reach 1.5 degrees Celsius between 2030 and 2050. 

Migration in 2024

Migration can be financially debilitating and dangerous. Since 2014, at least 4,000 people have died while attempting to migrate, and the number of unrecorded deaths is likely larger. 

Countries have a responsibility to prevent this, with stronger and better implemented migration policies. This is especially true of countries neighboring strife-ridden regions, which are more likely to end up housing refugees. 2023 has shown us how quickly millions of people can lose their homes overnight, due to war and conflict, and a more humanitarian approach to refugee intake and assimilation is required. 

Despite the dangers and struggles it comes with, migration can transform people’s lives for the better. Not only does international migration benefit migrants, who typically attain higher wages, improved access to public services, and upward mobility — it can help the destination country prosper by filling the gap between labor demand and supply. 

The United Nations promotes migrant workers’ rights and seeks to ensure that they have equitable and humane working conditions, and are protected against discrimination. With legal and social support, migrants can thrive, and the benefits are reaped not just by them, but by their destination countries, as well as their origin countries, whose economies benefit from remittances sent back home. 

Ratio of elders over 65 per child under 5

If managed well, migration is the key to a more economically equal world, with better labor-market match, improved earning and better scores on human development factors. Due to low fertility rates and aging populations, the labor needs of high- and middle-income countries are going to continue to rise in the coming decades. By 2050, the percentage of people over the age of 65 in high-income countries is expected to grow to 29% from 19% in 2022. Immigrants can fill this gap. The World Development Report 2023 states that, “in many high-income countries, increased immigration will have to be part of the response to demographic changes.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the number of forcibly displaced people, both internally and externally, will be 130.8 million across 133 countries and territories in 2024. Better and fairer migration policies are key to improved migration outcomes in the long run. 

Aishwarya Jagani

Based in India, Aishwarya Jagani is an independent tech journalist who has written about authoritarian tech, climate change, racism and diversity. She has written for publications including The Postscript, Bustle, The Quint, Unbias the News and Secure Futures.