• Migration and Migrants: A Global Overview

World Migration Report 2024: Chapter 2

Chapter 2
Migration and Migrants: A Global Overview

International migrants: numbers and trends

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UN DESA produces estimates of the number of international migrants globally. The following discussion draws on its estimates, which are based on data provided by States.5 The current United Nations Recommendations on Statistics of International Migration defines an “international migrant” as any person who has changed his or her country of usual residence, distinguishing between “short-term migrants” (those who have changed their countries of usual residence for at least three months, but less than one year) and “long-term migrants” (those who have done so for at least one year). However, not all countries use this definition in practice.6 Some countries use different criteria to identify international migrants, for example by applying different minimum durations of residence. Differences in concepts and definitions, as well as data collection methodologies between countries, hinder full comparability of national statistics on international migrants.

While the estimated number of international migrants has increased over the past 50 years, it is important to note that the vast majority of people live in the country in which they were born. In the latest international migrant estimates (dated as at mid-2020), almost 281 million people lived in a country other than their country of birth, or about 128 million more than 30 years earlier, in 1990 (153 million), and over three times the estimated number in 1970 (84 million). The proportion of international migrants as a share of the total global population has also increased, but only incrementally (see Table 1).


International Migrant Population Estimates – When is the next migrant stock data set due to be released?

The United Nations International Migrant Stock estimates are compiled, curated and released intermittently by the Population Division in DESA at United Nations Headquarters (New York). The latest estimates were released in January 2021, based on mid-2020 data – reasonably early in the COVID-19 pandemic and at the height of international travel restrictions. UN DESA anticipates that the next estimates will be released in the fourth quarter of 2024. More information about the Population Division’s International Migrant Stock estimates are available at www.un.org/development/desa/pd/.



Table 1. International migrants since 1970
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Source: UN DESA, 2008 and 2021a.
Note: The number of entities (such as States, territories and administrative regions) for which data were made available in the UN DESA International Migrant Stock 2020 was 232. In 1970, the number of entities was 135.


The available international migrant data include estimates of origin and destination links between two countries, allowing for the estimation of bilateral migration corridors globally. The size of a migration corridor from country A to country B is measured as the number of people born in country A who were residing in country B at the time of the estimate. Migration corridors represent an accumulation of migratory movements over time and provide a snapshot of how migration patterns have evolved into significant foreign-born populations in specific destination countries.

As can be seen in Figure 1, the Mexico to United States corridor is the largest in the world at nearly 11 million people. The second largest is from the Syrian Arab Republic to Türkiye, comprising mainly refugees displaced by the Syrian Arab Republic’s civil war. The corridor between the Russian Federation and Ukraine takes up spots three and five among the largest corridors in the world, which is due to a range of underpinning reasons over time (including, for example, displacement from Ukraine following Russian Federation invasions in 2014 and 2022). Discussion of refugees is included below in this chapter.



Figure 1. Top international country-to-country migration corridors, 2024
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Source: UN DESA, 2021a; UNHCR, 2023a.
Notes: The corridors represent the number of international migrants (millions) born in the first-mentioned country and residing in the second. Corridors represent an accumulation of migratory movements over time and provide a snapshot of how migration patterns have evolved into significant foreign-born populations in specific destination countries. Those corridors comprising mainly displaced persons are coloured orange. Revisions have been made based on large-scale displacement from Ukraine to neighbouring countries (as at end October 2023).


Why do some definitions of “international migrant” differ?

As highlighted in the text box above, there are various definitions of “international migrant” that can stem from legal, policy, demographic and other contexts. While the United Nations Statistical Commission prescribes a specific definition based on foreign-born, some analysts deploy other definitions for analytical purposes. The 2023 World Development Report (WDR), for example, chose to use a much more limited definition than that of the United Nations Statistical Commission by excluding from the UN DESA International Migrant Stock data migrants who had become citizens of the country to which they had migrated. Instead of 281 million international migrants, the WDR approach analyses a subset of 184 million migrants. This narrower approach provides a different perspective of migrants that encompasses all policy categories (including refugees) while overlaying a citizenship policy boundary even though acceptance by States of dual citizenship has increased significantly in recent years. This raises several implications, such as:

  • What does it mean for those migrants and societies that have no possibility for accessing citizenship, even after years or decades of residence, compared with those that have policy approaches enabling citizenship acquisition?
  • Does this definition intend to negate the important contributions of migrants who have become citizens of other countries (including dual citizens), such as the huge growth in international remittances sent by such migrants that has increasingly fuelled human development globally?
  • Are conceptual barriers to civic participation reinforced and validated through a narrow “citizen”-based definition, even though non-citizen residents are increasingly able to participate in civic engagement in democratic systems particularly in municipal elections (but also in some national elections)?


There is currently a larger number of male than female international migrants worldwide and the growing gender gap has increased over the past 20 years. In 2000, the male to female split was 50.6 to 49.4 per cent (or 88 million male migrants and 86 million female migrants). In 2020 the split was 51.9 to 48.1 per cent, with 146 million male migrants and 135 million female migrants. The share of female migrants has been decreasing since 2000, while the share of male migrants has increased by 1.3 percentage points. See Figure 2 for further breakdowns by sex.



Figure 2. International migrants, by sex
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Source: UN DESA, 2021a.


Examining international migrants by sex in the top 20 destination and origin countries (Figure 3) shows some clear patterns. There are more female than male international migrants in destination countries in Europe and Northern America, such as the United States of America, Canada, France, Spain and Italy, but also in India. In contrast, for most Asian countries in the top 20 – particularly the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait – the number of male international migrants is much higher than female, which is related to the structure of economies (e.g. construction and security sector prevalence) as well as social and human security factors.7



Figure 3. International migrants, by sex, top 20 destination countries (left) and origin countries (right) (millions)*
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Source : UN DESA, 2021a.
Note: * This includes territories. 


Proportionally, the distribution of female and male international migrants is about equal in most top 20 destination countries (Figure 4), except in several GCC countries and Malaysia, where the share of males is much higher, as well as in Ukraine, where there is a significantly higher number of female immigrants. This pattern is broadly similar in top 20 origin countries, with only slight differences between females and males, except in a handful of origin countries such as India, the Syrian Arab Republic, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Myanmar and Egypt, where the share of male migrants as a percentage of total emigrants from these countries is significant and considerably higher than that of female international migrants.



Figure 4. International migrants, by sex, top 20 destination countries (left) and origin countries (right) – proportion*
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Source: UN DESA, 2021a.
Note: “Proportion’’ refers to the share of female or male migrants in the total number of immigrants in destination countries (left) or in the total number of emigrants from origin countries (right).
* This includes territories. 


While the international migrant worker data set managed by the ILO has not been updated for several years, it nevertheless provides some additional insights into the growing gender gap in the international migrant population.8 As can be seen in Figure 5, 102.4 million or almost 61 per cent of all international migrant workers resided in three subregions: Northern America; the Arab States; and Northern, Southern and Western Europe.9 Notably, there is a striking gender imbalance of migrant workers in two regions: Southern Asia (5.7 million males compared with 1.4 million females) and the Arab States (19.9 million males compared with 4.2 million females). The Arab States region is one of the top destinations for international migrant workers, where they comprise 41.4 per cent of the entire working population, often dominating in key sectors.



Figure 5. Geographic distribution of migrant workers by sex (millions)
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Source: ILO, 2021.
Note: The figure reflects ILO geographic regions and subregions, and does not imply official endorsement or acceptance by IOM. Please see annex A of ILO, 2021 for more information on regional breakdowns. Please note that the rest of this chapter refers to the UN DESA geographical regions.


International migration and long-term population trends

In some parts of the world, international migration has become a major component of population change. For high-income countries between 2000 and 2020, the contribution of international migration to population growth (net inflow of 80.5 million) exceeded the balance of births over deaths (66.2 million). Over the next few decades, migration will be the sole driver of population growth in high-income countries. By contrast, for the foreseeable future, population increase in low-income and lower-middle-income countries will continue to be driven by an excess of births over deaths.

Between 2010 and 2021, 40 countries or areas experienced a net inflow of more than 200,000 migrants each; in 17 of them, the net inflow over this period exceeded 1 million people. For several of the top receiving countries, including Jordan, Lebanon and Türkiye, high levels of immigration in this period were driven mostly by refugee movements, in particular from the Syrian Arab Republic.

For 10 countries, the estimated net outflow of migrants exceeded 1 million over the period from 2010 through 2021. In many of these countries, the outflows were due to temporary labour movements, such as for Pakistan (net flow of −16.5 million), India (−3.5 million), Bangladesh (−2.9 million), Nepal (−1.6 million) and Sri Lanka (−1.0 million). In other countries, including the Syrian Arab Republic (−4.6 million), the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (−4.8 million) and Myanmar (−1.0 million), insecurity and conflict drove the outflow of migrants over this period.

Source: Abridged extract of the United Nations World Population Prospects 2022 (UN DESA, 2022a).