International Migration 2020 Highlights [EN/RU/ZH]

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Prepared by Clare Menozzi under the guidance of Vinod Mishra

Executive summary

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic affected drastically all forms of human mobility, including international migration. Around the globe, the closing of national borders and severe disruptions to international travel obliged hundreds of thousands of people to cancel or delay plans of moving abroad. Hundreds of thousands of migrants were stranded, unable to return to their countries, while others were forced to return to their home countries earlier than planned, when job opportunities dried up and schools closed. While it is too soon to understand the full extent of the impact of the pandemic on migration trends, the present Highlights indicate that the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced the number of international migrants by around 2 million globally by mid-2020, corresponding to a decrease of around 27 per cent in the growth expected from July 2019 to June 2020.

Prior to the disruptions to migration flows caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the number of international migrants had grown robustly over the past two decades. It is estimated that the number of persons living outside of their country of origin reached 281 million in 2020, roughly equal to the size of the entire population of Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of international migrants increased by 48 million globally, with another 60 million added between 2010 and 2020. Much of this increase was due to labour or family migration. Humanitarian crises in many parts of the world also contributed, with an increase of 17 million in the number of refugees and asylum seekers between 2000 and 2020. In 2020, the number of persons forcibly displaced across national borders worldwide stood at 34 million, double the number in 2000.

Europe was the region with the largest number of international migrants in 2020: 87 million. Northern America hosted the second largest number of migrants, nearly 59 million; followed by Northern Africa and Western Asia, with a total of nearly 50 million. In all other regions, the number of migrants was much smaller. If current trends continue, Northern Africa and Western Asia is likely to overtake Northern America as the region with the second largest number of migrants in the world within the next decades. This shift reflects the increasing diversification of economic opportunities available to migrant workers and it foretells the greater competition that destination countries will likely face in the future to attract migrants, especially highly skilled migrants.

The majority of international migrants originate from middle-income countries. In 2020, nearly 177 million international migrants globally came from a middle-income country, equal to nearly 63 per cent of the total. Of these, nearly 90 million were born in a lower-middle-income country and 88 million in an upper-middle-income country. Some 37 million international migrants, or around 13 per cent of the total, originated from low-income countries. While the number of migrants originating from low-income countries remains small compared to other income groups, it grew rapidly between 2000 and 2020. Much of this increase was driven by humanitarian crises. In 2020, nearly half of all international migrants originating from low-income countries were refugees or asylum seekers. For the other income groups, those forcibly displaced across borders comprised a much smaller share of their total transnational populations.

Diasporas play an important role in the development of their countries of origin by promoting foreign investment, trade, innovation, access to technology and financial inclusion. Remittances sent by migrants also improve the livelihoods of families and communities in countries of origin through investments in education, health, sanitation, housing and other infrastructure. Flows of remittances to low- and middle-income countries are projected to decline in 2020 compared to pre-COVID-19 levels. For many countries, the reduction of remittances is likely to have serious financial and social impacts which, together with the contraction of other international financial flows due to the pandemic, will require national strategies and international cooperation to mitigate their effects.

In 2020, nearly half of all international migrants at the global level were living in their region of origin. Europe had the largest share of intra-regional migration, with 70 per cent of all migrants born in Europe residing in another European country. Sub-Saharan Africa had the second largest share of intra-regional migration globally (63 per cent). By contrast, Central and Southern Asia had the largest share (78 per cent) of its diaspora residing outside the region. Other regions with large shares of their transnational populations residing outside their region of origin included Latin America and the Caribbean (74 per cent) and Northern America (75 per cent).

The spatial distribution of transnational populations varies greatly. India’s diaspora, the largest in the world, is distributed across a number of major countries of destination. China and the Russian Federation also have spatially diffused diasporas. By contrast, the transnational populations from countries such as Algeria, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico tend to concentrate in a single or a few countries of destination. Many countries have instituted policy measures to encourage investment by their transnational populations. These measures include streamlined bureaucratic procedures to facilitate diaspora investment, tax exemptions or other financial incentives, and preferential treatment in the allotment of permits, licenses or credit.

Migrant women are important agents of change. They transform social, cultural and political norms and promote positive social change across households and communities. As migrants, women also contribute to the economic development of their countries of origin and destination. In 2020, just under half of all international migrants worldwide were women or girls. While most migrant women move for labour, education or family reasons, many are forced to leave their countries due to conflict or persecution. Women and girls also comprised around half of all persons forcibly displaced across national borders in 2020.

The share of international migrants in the total population by age varies greatly across income groups and geographic regions. In countries where fertility is low or where international migrants represent a large share of the total population, international migrants constitute a larger proportion of all children and adolescents. In many societies, international migrants also comprise a sizable share of the working-age population (aged 20 to 64). International migrants of working age contribute to easing some of the pressure on public pension systems in countries experiencing population ageing. However, for a country with a long history of immigration, in which immigrants tend to remain in the destination country through the working ages and after retirement, the average age of the immigrant population may exceed the national average – in part, because the children of immigrants born in the destination country are not counted as migrants.

After the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a growing number of countries have focused on providing options for safe, orderly and regular migration, while taking into consideration current and projected national demographic trends and labour market needs. The available evidence suggests that a majority of countries grant highly skilled workers preferential treatment, subjecting them to fewer restrictions regarding admission, length of stay, conditions of employment and admission of family members than low-skilled migrants. Most Governments also allow immigration for family purposes under certain conditions and have developed policies to support family reunification for migrants, consistent with the right to family life and the principle of the best interests of the child. Globally, more than half (54 per cent) of all Governments with available data reported having policies to facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration, as called for in target 10.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals.


Migration has major impacts on both the people and the places of the migrants’ origin and destination. When supported by appropriate policies, migration can contribute to inclusive and sustainable development in both origin and destination countries, while also benefitting migrants and their families. The linkages between migration and development, including the opportunities and challenges that migration brings, are well established and duly acknowledged in a series of landmark agreements adopted by the United Nations Member States, including, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and, most recently, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

Reliable data on migrants and migration are crucial for assessing current and future trends, identifying policy priorities and making informed decisions. Reliable and comprehensive data on migration can help ensure that discussions on migration, at both national and international levels, are based on facts, not myths or mere perceptions. Accurate, consistent and timely data on international migration are also essential to monitor progress in the achievement of internationally agreed development goals, including the Sustainable Development Goals and the objectives of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The Global Compact is the first negotiated global agreement covering all dimensions of migration in a holistic and comprehensive manner, in which Governments have placed a strong emphasis on data by including the “Collection and utilization of accurate and disaggregated [migration] data as a basis for evidence-based policies” as the first of its 23 objectives.

For many years, the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs has provided the international community with regular and timely data on the number of international migrants, estimates of net migration and on Government policies on international migration for countries in all regions of the world. These Highlights provide an overview of key findings based on two recent datasets produced by the Population Division: International Migrant Stock 2020 and data on SDG indicator 10.7.2. The latter were collected jointly with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) through the module on international migration (module III) of the United Nations Twelfth Inquiry among Governments on Population and Development.