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Article contents

Global migration: causes and consequences.

  • Benjamin Helms Benjamin Helms Department of Politics, University of Virginia
  •  and  David Leblang David Leblang Department of Politics, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.631
  • Published online: 25 February 2019

International migration is a multifaceted process with distinct stages and decision points. An initial decision to leave one’s country of birth may be made by the individual or the family unit, and this decision may reflect a desire to reconnect with friends and family who have already moved abroad, a need to diversify the family’s access to financial capital, a demand to increase wages, or a belief that conditions abroad will provide social and/or political benefits not available in the homeland. Once the individual has decided to move abroad, the next decision is the choice of destination. Standard explanations of destination choice have focused on the physical costs associated with moving—moving shorter distances is often less expensive than moving to a destination farther away; these explanations have recently been modified to include other social, political, familial, and cultural dimensions as part of the transaction cost associated with migrating. Arrival in a host country does not mean that an émigré’s relationship with their homeland is over. Migrant networks are an engine of global economic integration—expatriates help expand trade and investment flows, they transmit skills and knowledge back to their homelands, and they remit financial and human capital. Aware of the value of their external populations, home countries have developed a range of policies that enable them to “harness” their diasporas.

  • immigration
  • international political economy
  • factor flows
  • gravity models


The steady growth of international labor migration is an important, yet underappreciated, aspect of globalization. 1 In 1970 , just 78 million people, or about 2.1% of the global population, lived outside their country of birth. By 1990 , that number had nearly doubled to more than 150 million people, or about 2.8% of the global population (United Nations Population Division, 2012 ). Despite the growth of populist political parties and restrictionist movements in key destination countries, the growth in global migration shows no signs of slowing down, with nearly 250 million people living outside their country of birth as of 2015 . While 34% of all global migrants live in industrialized countries (with the United States and Germany leading the way), 38% of all global migration occurs between developing countries (World Bank, 2016 ).

Identifying the causes and consequences of international labor migration is essential to our broader understanding of globalization. Scholars across diverse academic fields, including economics, political science, sociology, law, and demography, have attempted to explain why individuals voluntarily leave their homelands. The dominant thread in the labor migration literature is influenced by microeconomics, which posits that individuals contemplating migration are rational, utility-maximizing actors who carefully weigh the potential costs and benefits of leaving their country of origin (e.g., Borjas, 1989 ; Portes & Böröcz, 1989 ; Grogger & Hanson, 2011 ). The act of migration, from this perspective, is typically conceptualized as an investment from which a migrant expects to receive some benefit, whether it be in the form of increased income, political freedom, or enhanced social ties (Schultz, 1961 ; Sjaastad, 1962 ; Collier & Hoeffler, 2014 ).

In this article we go beyond the treatment of migration as a single decision and conceive of it as a multifaceted process with distinct stages and decision points. We identify factors that are relevant at different stages in the migration process and highlight how and when certain factors interact with others during the migration process. Economic factors such as the wage differential between origin and destination countries, for example, may be the driving factor behind someone’s initial decision to migrate (Borjas, 1989 ). But when choosing a specific destination, economic factors may be conditioned by political or social conditions in that destination (Fitzgerald, Leblang, & Teets, 2014 ). Each stage or decision point has distinguishing features that are important in determining how (potential) migrants respond to the driving forces identified by scholars.

This is certainly not a theoretical innovation; migration has long been conceived of as a multi-step process, and scholars often identify the stage or decision point to which their argument best applies. However, most interdisciplinary syntheses of the literature on international labor migration do not provide a systematic treatment of this defining feature, instead organizing theoretical and empirical contributions by field of study, unit or level of analysis, or theoretical tradition (e.g., Portes & Böröcz, 1989 ; Massey et al., 1993 ; European Asylum Support Office, 2016 ). Such approaches are undoubtedly valuable in their own right. Our decision to organize this discussion by stage allows us to understand this as a process, rather than as a set of discrete events. As a result, we conceptualize international labor migration as three stages or decision points: (a) the decision to migrate or to remain at home, (b) the choice of destination, and (c) the manner by which expatriates re-engage—or choose not to re-engage—with their country of origin once abroad. We also use these decision points to highlight a number of potential new directions for future research in this still-evolving field.

Figure 1. Global migration intentions by educational attainment, 2008–2017.

Should I Stay or Should I Go, Now?

The massive growth in international labor migration in the age of globalization is remarkable, but the fact remains that over 95% of the world’s population never leave their country of origin (United Nations Population Division, 2012 ). Figure 1 shows the percentage of people who expressed an intention to move abroad between 2008 and 2017 by educational attainment, according to data from the Gallup World Poll. Over this time period, it appears that those who were highly educated expressed intent to migrate in greater numbers than those who had less than a college education, although these two groups have converged in recent years. What is most striking, however, is that a vast majority of people, regardless of educational attainment, expressed no desire to move abroad. Even though absolute flows of migrants have grown at a near-exponential rate, relative to their non-migrating counterparts, they remain a small minority. What factors are important in determining who decides to migrate and who decides to remain at home? 2

From Neoclassical Economics to the Mobility Transition

Neoclassical economic models posit that the primary driving factor behind migration is the expected difference in wages (discounted future income streams) between origin and destination countries (Sjaastad, 1962 ; Borjas, 1989 ; Clark, Hatton, & Williamson, 2007 ). All else equal, when the wage gap, minus the costs associated with moving between origin and destination, is high, these models predict large flows of labor migrants. In equilibrium, as more individuals move from origin to destination countries, the wage differential narrows, which in turn leads to zero net migration (Lewis, 1954 ; Harris & Todaro, 1970 ). Traditional models predict a negative monotonic relationship between the wage gap and the number of migrants (e.g., Sjaastad, 1962 ). However, the predictions of neoclassical models are not well supported by the empirical record. Empirical evidence shows that, at least in a cross-section, the relationship between economic development and migration is more akin to an inverted U. For countries with low levels of per capita income, we observe little migration due to a liquidity constraint: at this end of the income distribution, individuals do not have sufficient resources to cover even minor costs associated with moving abroad. Increasing income helps to decrease this constraint, and consequently we observe increased levels of emigration as incomes rise (de Haas, 2007 ). This effect, however, is not monotonic: as countries reach middle-income status, declining wage differentials lead to flattening rates of emigration, and then decreasing rates as countries enter later stages of economic development. 3

Some research explains this curvilinear relationship by focusing on the interaction between emigration incentives and constraints : for example, increased income initially makes migration more affordable (reduces constraints), but also simultaneously reduces the relative economic benefits of migrating as the wage differential narrows (as potential migrants now have the financial capacity to enhance local amenities) (Dao, Docquier, Parsons, & Peri, 2016 ). The theoretical underpinnings of this interaction, however, are not without controversy. Clemens identifies several classes of theory that attempt to explain this curvilinear relationship—a relationship that has been referred to in the literature as the mobility transition (Clemens, 2014 ). These theories include: demographic changes resulting from development that also favor emigration up to a point (Easterlin, 1961 ; Tomaske, 1971 ), the loosening of credit restraints on would-be migrants (Vanderkamp, 1971 ; Hatton & Williamson, 1994 ), a breakdown of information barriers via the building of transnational social networks (Epstein, 2008 ), structural economic changes in the development process that result in worker dislocation (Zelinsky, 1971 ; Massey, 1988 ), the dynamics of economic inequality and relative deprivation (Stark, 1984 ; Stark & Yitzhaki, 1988 ; Stark & Taylor, 1991 ), and changing immigration policies in destination countries toward increasingly wealthy countries (Clemens, 2014 ). While each of these play some role in the mobility transition curve, Dao et al. ( 2016 ) run an empirical horse race between numerous explanations and find that changing skill composition resulting from economic development is the most substantively important driver. Economic development is correlated with an increase in a country’s level of education; an increase in the level of education, in turn, is correlated with increased emigration. However, traditional explanations involving microeconomic drivers such as income, credit constraints, and economic inequality remain important factors (Dao et al., 2016 ). The diversity of explanations offered for the mobility transition curve indicates that while most research agrees the inverted-U relationship is an accurate empirical portrayal of the relationship between development and migration, little theoretical agreement exists on what drives this relationship. Complicating this disagreement is the difficulty of empirically disentangling highly correlated factors such as income, skill composition, and demographic trends in order to identify robust causal relationships.

Political Conditions at the Origin

While there is a scholarly consensus around the mobility transition and the role of economic conditions, emerging research suggests that the political environment in the origin country may also be salient. We do not refer here to forced migration, such as in the case of those who leave because they are fleeing political persecution or violent conflict. Rather, we focus on political conditions in the homeland that influence a potential migrant’s decision to emigrate voluntarily. Interpretations of how, and the extent to which, political conditions in origin countries (independent of economic conditions) influence the decision to migrate have been heavily influenced by Hirschman’s “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty” framework (Hirschman, 1970 , 1978 ). Hirschman argues that the opportunity to exit—to exit a firm, an organization, or a country—places pressure on the local authorities; voting with one’s feet forces organizations to reassess their operations.

When applied to the politics of emigration, Hirschman’s framework generates two different hypotheses. On the one hand, politicians may allow, encourage, or force the emigration of groups that oppose the regime as a political safety valve of sorts. This provides the government with a mechanism with which to manage potential political challengers by encouraging their exit. On the other hand, politicians—especially those in autocracies—may actively work to prevent exit because they fear the emigration of economic elites, the highly skilled, and others who have resources vital to the survival of the regime. 4

A small number of studies investigate how local-level, rather than national, political circumstances affect a potential migrant’s calculus. The limited empirical evidence currently available suggests that local conditions are substantively important determinants of the emigration decision. When individuals are highly satisfied with local amenities such as their own standard of living, quality of public services, and overall sense of physical security, they express far less intention to migrate compared with highly dissatisfied individuals (Dustmann & Okatenko, 2014 ). Furthermore, availability of public transport and access to better education facilities decreases the propensity to express an intention to emigrate (Cazzuffi & Modrego, 2018 ). This relationship holds across all levels of wealth and economic development, and there is some evidence that satisfaction with local amenities matters as much as, or even more than, income or wealth (Dustmann & Okatenko, 2014 ).

Political corruption, on both national and local levels, also has substantively important effects on potential migrants, especially those who are highly skilled. Broadly defined as the use of public office for political gain, political corruption operates as both a direct and an indirect factor promoting emigration. 5 Firstly, corruption may have a direct effect on the desire to emigrate in that it can decrease the political and economic power of an individual, leading to a lower standard of living and poorer quality of life in origin countries. If the reduction in life satisfaction resulting from corruption is sufficiently high—either by itself or in combination with other “push” factors—then the exit option becomes more attractive (Cooray & Schneider, 2016 ). Secondly, corruption also operates through indirect channels that influence other push factors. Given the large literature on how political corruption influences a number of development outcomes, it is conceivable that corruption affects the decision-making process of a potential migrant through its negative effect on social spending, education, and public health (Mo, 2001 ; Mauro, 1998 ; Gupta, Davoodi, & Thigonson, 2001 ).

The combination of its direct and indirect impacts means that corruption could be a significant part of a migrant’s decision-making process. At present there is limited work exploring this question, and the research does not yield a consensus. Some scholars argue that political corruption has no substantive effect on total bilateral migration, but that it does encourage migration among the highly skilled (Dimant, Krieger, & Meierrieks, 2013 ). This is the case, the argument goes, because corruption causes the greatest relative harm to the utility of those who have invested in human capital, who migrate to escape the negative effect on their fixed investment. In contrast, others find that a high level of corruption does increase emigration at the aggregate level (Poprawe, 2015 ). More nuanced arguments take into account the intensity of corruption: low to moderate levels of corruption lead to increased emigration of all groups, and especially of the highly skilled. But at high levels of corruption, emigration begins to decrease, indicating that intense corruption can act as a mobility constraint (Cooray & Schneider, 2016 ). All of these existing accounts, however, employ state-level measures of corruption by non-governmental organizations, such as those produced by Transparency International. Scholars have yet to harness micro-level survey data to explore the influence of personal corruption perception on the individual’s decision-making process.

The Land of Hopes and Dreams

Given that an individual has decided to emigrate, the next decision point is to choose a destination country. Advanced industrial democracies, such as those in the OECD, are major migrant-receiving countries, but so are Russia and several Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (World Bank, 2016 ). A country’s constellation of political, economic, and social attributes is crucial to understanding an emigrant’s choice of destination. Potential migrants weigh all of these factors simultaneously when choosing a destination: will the destination allow political rights for the migrant and their children, is access to the labor market possible, and does the destination provide an opportunity for reunification with friends and family? In this section we focus on the non-economic factors that draw migrants to certain countries over others. In addition, we emphasize how skill level adds layers of complexity to a migrant’s calculus.

Political Environment, Both Formal and Informal

As noted earlier, traditional neoclassical models and their extensions place wage differentials and associated economic variables at the heart of a migrant’s choice. Gravity models posit that migrants choose a destination country based on their expected income—which itself is a function of the wage rate and the probability of finding employment in the destination—less the costs associated with moving (Ravenstein, 1885 ; Todaro, 1969 ; Borjas, 1989 ). A rigid focus on economic factors, however, blinds us to the empirical reality that a destination country’s political environment influences what destination a migrant chooses (Borjas, 1989 ). A country’s legal and political rights structure for migrants, as well as its level of tolerance for newcomers, is critical to migrants discriminating between an array of potential destinations. Fitzgerald, Leblang, and Teets ( 2014 ) argue, for example, that states with restrictive citizenship policies and strong radical right anti-immigrant parties will receive fewer migrants, while states with relatively liberal citizenship requirements and weak radical right political movements will receive more migrants. In the rational actor framework, migrants seek countries with hospitable political environments to maximize both their political representation in government and their access to labor market opportunities as a result of citizenship rights and social acceptance (Fitzgerald et al., 2014 ).

Using a broad sample of origin countries and 18 destination countries, they find that relative restrictiveness of citizenship policies and level of domestic support for the radical right are substantively important determinants of global migratory flows. Further, they find that these political variables condition a migrant’s choice of destination: the relative importance of economic factors such as the unemployment rate or the wage differential diminishes as a destination country’s political environment becomes more open for migrants. In other words, when migrants are choosing a destination country, political considerations may trump economic ones—a finding that is an important amendment to the primarily economics-focused calculus of the initial stage of the immigration decision.

However, prior to choosing and entering a destination country, a migrant must also navigate a country’s immigration policy—the regulation of both migrant entry and the rights and status of current migrants. While it is often assumed that a relatively more restrictive immigration policy deters entry, and vice versa, a lack of quantitative data has limited the ability of scholars to confirm this intuition cross-nationally. Money ( 1999 ) emphasizes that the policy output of immigration politics does not necessarily correlate with the outcome of international migrant flows. There are a number of unanswered questions in this field, including: is immigration policy a meaningful determinant of global flows of migration? Do certain kinds of immigration policies matter more than others? How does immigration policy interact with other political and economic factors, such as unemployment and social networks?

Only a handful of studies analyze whether or not immigration policy is a significant determinant of the size and character of migratory flows. Perhaps the most prominent answer to this question is the “gap hypothesis,” which posits that immigration rates continue to increase despite increasingly restrictive immigration policies in advanced countries (Cornelius & Tsuda, 2004 ). Some subsequent work seems to grant support to the gap hypothesis, indicating that immigration policy may not be a relevant factor and that national sovereignty as it relates to dictating migrant inflows has eroded significantly (Sassen, 1996 ; Castles, 2004 ). The gap hypothesis is not without its critics, with other scholars arguing that the existing empirical evidence actually lends it little or no support (Messina, 2007 ).

A more recent body of literature does indicate that immigration policy matters. Brücker and Schröder ( 2011 ), for example, find that immigration policies built to attract highly skilled migrants lead to higher admittance rates. They also show that diffusion processes cause neighboring countries to implement similar policy measures. Ortega and Peri ( 2013 ), in contrast to the gap hypothesis literature, find that restrictive immigration policy indeed reduces migrant inflows. But immigration policy can also have unintended effects on international migration: when entry requirements increase, migrant inflows decrease, but migrant outflows also decrease (Czaika & de Haas, 2016 ). This indicates that restrictive immigration policy may also lead to reduced circular migrant flows and encourage long-term settlement in destination countries.

Disaggregating immigration policy into its different components provides a clearer picture of how immigration policy may matter, and whether certain components matter more than others. Immigration policy is composed of both external and internal regulations. External regulations refer to policies that control migrant entry, such as eligibility requirements for migrants and additional conditions of entry. Internal regulations refer to policies that apply to migrants who have already gained status in the country, such as the security of a migrant’s legal status and the rights they are afforded. Helbling and Leblang ( 2017 ), using a comprehensive data set of bilateral migrant flows and the Immigration Policies in Comparison (IMPIC) data set, find that, in general, external regulations prove slightly more important in understanding migrant inflows (Helbling, Bjerre, Römer, & Zobel, 2017 ). This indicates that potential migrants focus more on how to cross borders, and less on the security of their status and rights once they settle. They do find, however, that both external and internal components of immigration are substantively important to international migrant flows.

The effects of policy, however, cannot be understood in isolation from other drivers of migration. Firstly, poor economic conditions and restrictive immigration policy are mutually reinforcing: when the unemployment rate is elevated, restrictive policies are more effective in deterring migrant flows. An increase in policy effectiveness in poor economic conditions suggests that states care more about deterring immigration when the economy is performing poorly. Secondly, a destination country’s restrictive immigration policy is more effective when migrants come from origin countries that have a common colonial heritage. This suggests that cultural similarities and migrant networks help to spread information about the immigration policy environment in the destination country. Social networks prove to be crucial in determining how much migrants know about the immigration policies of destination countries, regardless of other cultural factors such as colonial heritage or common language (Helbling & Leblang, 2017 ). In summary, more recent work supports the idea that immigration policy of destination countries exerts a significant influence on both the size and character of international migration flows. Much work remains to be done in terms of understanding the nuances of specific immigration policy components, the effect of policy change over time, and through what mechanisms immigration policy operates.

Transnational Social Networks

None of this should be taken to suggest that only political and economic considerations matter when a potential migrant contemplates a potential destination; perhaps one of the biggest contributions to the study of bilateral migration is the role played by transnational social networks. Migrating is a risky undertaking, and to minimize that risk, migrants are more likely to move to destinations where they can “readily tap into networks of co-ethnics” (Fitzgerald et al., 2014 , p. 410). Dense networks of co-ethnics not only help provide information about economic opportunities, but also serve as a social safety net which, in turn, helps decrease the risks associated with migration, including, but not limited to, finding housing and integrating into a new community (Massey, 1988 ; Portes & Böröcz, 1989 ; Portes, 1995 ; Massey et al., 1993 ; Faist, 2000 ; Sassen, 1995 ; Light, Bernard, & Kim, 1999 ). Having a transnational network of family members is quite important to destination choice; if a destination country has an immigration policy that emphasizes family reunification, migrants can use their familial connections to gain economically valuable permanent resident or citizenship status more easily than in other countries (Massey et al., 1993 , p. 450; Helbing & Leblang, 2017 ). When the migrant is comparing potential destinations, countries in which that migrant has a strong social network will be heavily favored in a cost–benefit analysis.

Note, however, that even outside of a strict rational actor framework with perfect information, transnational social networks still may be quite salient to destination choice. An interesting alternative hypothesis for the patterns we observe draws on theories from financial market behavior which focus on herding. Migrants choosing a destination observe the decisions of their co-ethnics who previously migrated and assume that those decisions were based on a relevant set of information, such as job opportunities or social tolerance of migrants. New migrants then choose the same destination as their co-ethnics not based on actual exchanges of valuable information, but based solely on the assumption that previous migration decisions were based on rational calculation (Epstein & Gang, 2006 ; Epstein, 2008 ). This is a classic example of herding, and the existing empirical evidence on the importance of transnational social networks cannot invalidate this alternative hypothesis. One could also explain social network effects through the lens of cumulative causation or feedback loops: the initial existence of connections in destination countries makes the act of migration less risky and attracts additional co-ethnics. This further expands migrant networks in a destination, further decreasing risk for future waves of migrants, and so on (Massey, 1990 ; Fussel & Massey, 2004 ; Fussel, 2010 ).

No matter the pathway by which social networks operate, the empirical evidence indicates that they are one of the most important determinants of destination choice. Potential migrants from Mexico, for example, who are able to tap into existing networks in the United States face lower direct, opportunity, and psychological costs of international migration (Massey & Garcia España, 1987 ). This same relationship holds in the European context; a study of Bulgarian and Italian migrants indicates that those with “social capital” in a destination community are more likely to migrate and to choose that particular destination (Haug, 2008 ). Studies that are more broadly cross-national in nature also confirm the social network hypothesis across a range of contexts and time periods (e.g., Clark et al., 2007 ; Hatton & Williamson, 2011 ; Fitzgerald et al., 2014 ).

Despite the importance of social networks, it is, again, important to qualify their role in framing the choice of destinations. It seems that the existence of co-ethnics in destination countries most strongly influences emigration when they are relatively few in number. Clark et al. ( 2007 ), in their study of migration to the United States, find that the “friends and relatives effect” falls to zero once the migrant stock in the United States reaches 8.3% of the source-country population. In addition, social networks alone cannot explain destination choice because their explanatory power is context-dependent. For instance, restrictive immigration policies limiting legal migration channels and family reunification may dampen the effectiveness of networks (Böcker, 1994 ; Collyer, 2006 ). Social networks are not an independent force, but also interact with economic and political realities to produce the global migration patterns we observe.

The Lens of Skill

For ease of presentation, we have up to now treated migrants as a relatively homogeneous group that faces similar push and pull factors throughout the decision-making process. Of course, not all migrants experience the same economic, political, and social incentives in the same way at each stage of the decision-making process. Perhaps the most salient differentiating feature of migrants is skill or education level. Generally, one can discuss a spectrum of skill and education level for current migrants, from relatively less educated (having attained a high school degree or less) to relatively more educated (having attained a college or post-graduate degree). The factors presented here that influence destination choice interact with a migrant’s skill level to produce differing destination choice patterns.

A migrant’s level of education, or human capital, often serves as a filter for the political treatment he or she anticipates in a particular destination country. For instance, the American public has a favorable view of highly educated migrants who hold higher-status jobs, while simultaneously having an opposite view of migrants who have less job training and do not hold a college degree (Hainmueller & Hiscox, 2010 ; Hainmueller & Hopkins, 2015 ). Indeed, the political discourse surrounding migration often emphasizes skill level and education as markers of migrants who “should be” admitted, across both countries and the ideological spectrum. 6 While political tolerance may be a condition of entry for migrants in the aggregate, the relatively privileged status of highly educated and skilled migrants in most destination countries may mean that this condition is not as salient.

While it is still an open question to what extent immigration policy influences international migration, it is clear that not all migrants face evenly applied migration restrictions. Most attractive destination countries have policies that explicitly favor highly skilled migrants, since these individuals often fill labor shortages in advanced industries such as high technology and applied science. Countries such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand all employ so-called “points-based” immigration systems in which those with advanced degrees and needed skills are institutionally favored for legal entry (Papademetriou & Sumption, 2011 ). Meanwhile, the United States maintains the H-1B visa program, which is restricted by educational attainment and can only be used to fill jobs in which no native talent is available (USCIS). Even if destination countries decide to adopt more restrictive immigration policies, the move toward restriction has typically been focused on low-skilled migrants (Peters, 2017 ). In other words, even if immigration policy worldwide becomes more restrictive, this will almost certainly not occur at the expense of highly skilled migrants and will not prevent them choosing their most preferred destination.

Bring It on Home to Me

This article began by asserting that international labor migration is an important piece of globalization, as significant as cross-border flows of capital, goods, and services. This section argues that migrant flows enhance flows of capital and commodities. Uniquely modern conditions such as advanced telecommunications, affordable and efficient international travel, and the liberalization of financial flows mean that diasporas—populations of migrants living outside their countries of origin—and home countries often re-engage with each other (Vertovec, 2004 ; Waldinger, 2008 ). This section reviews some of the newest and most thought-provoking research on international labor migration, research that explores diaspora re-engagement and how that re-engagement alters international flows of income, portfolio and foreign direct investment (FDI), trade, and migratory flows themselves.


As previously argued, migration is often driven by the prospect of higher wages. Rational, utility-maximizing migrants incur the cost of migration in order to earn increased income that they could not earn at home. But when migrants obtain higher wages, this additional increment to income is not always designated for individual consumption. Often, migrants use their new income to send remittances, direct transfers of money from one individual to another across national borders. Once a marginal financial flow, in 2015 remittances totaled $431 billion, far outpacing foreign aid ($135 billion) and nearly passing private debt and portfolio equity ($443 billion). More than 70% of total global remittances flow into developing countries (World Bank, 2016 ). In comparison with other financial flows such as portfolio investment and FDI, remittances are more impervious to economic crises, suggesting that they may be a countercyclical force to global downturns (Leblang, 2017 ).

Remittances represent one of the most common ways in which migrants re-engage with their homeland and alter both global income flows and distribution. Why do migrants surrender large portions of their new income, supposedly the very reason they migrated in the first place, to their families back home? New economics of labor migration (NELM) theory argues that immigration itself is motivated by a family’s need or demand for remittances—that remittances are an integral part of a family’s strategy for diversifying household financial risk (Stark & Bloom, 1985 ). Remittances “are a manifestation of informal contractual agreements between migrants and the households from which they move,” indicating that remitting is not an individual-level or purely altruistic action but rather occurs in a larger social context, that of one’s immediate or extended family (European Asylum Support Office, 2016 , p. 15).

The impact of migrant remittances on countries of origin is multifaceted yet somewhat ambiguous. Most scholarly work focuses on whether remittances positively or negatively influence existing economic conditions. A number of studies find that remittances modestly reduce poverty levels in developing countries (Adams & Page, 2005 ; Yang & Martinez, 2006 ; Acosta, Calderon, Fajnzybler, & Lopez, 2008 ; Lokshin, Bontch-Osmolovski, & Glinskaya, 2010 ). On other measures of economic well-being, such as growth, inequality, and health, the literature is quite mixed and no definitive conclusions can be drawn. For instance, some studies find that remittances encourage investment in human capital (Yang, 2008 ; Adams & Cuecuecha, 2010 ), while others find no such effect and suggest that families typically spend remittances on non-productive consumption goods (Chami, Fullenkamp, & Jahjah, 2003 ). Here we can only scratch the surface of the empirical work on remittances and economic outcomes. 7

Some of the most recent research in the field argues that remittances have a distinct political dimension, affecting regime support in developing countries and altering the conditions in which elections are held. Ahmed ( 2012 ), grouping remittances with foreign aid, argues that increased remittances allow autocratic governments to extend their tenure in office. These governments can strategically channel unearned government and household income to finance political patronage networks, which leads to a reduced likelihood of autocratic turnover, regime collapse, and mass protests against the regime. More recent research posits nearly the exact opposite: remittances are linked to a greater likelihood of democratization under autocratic regimes. Escriba-Folch, Meseguer, and Wright ( 2015 ) argue that since remittances directly increase household incomes, they reduce voter reliance on political patronage networks, undermining a key tool of autocratic stability.

Remittances may also play an important role in countries with democratic institutions, yet more research is needed to fully understand the conditions under which they matter and their substantive impact. Particularly, remittances may alter the dynamics of an election as an additional and external financial flow. There is evidence of political remittance cycles : the value of remittances spikes in the run-up to elections in developing countries. The total value of remittances to the average developing country increases by 6.6% during election years, and by 12% in elections in which no incumbent or named successor is running (O’Mahony, 2012 ). The effect is even larger in the poorest of developing countries. Finer-grained tests of this hypothesis provide additional support: using monthly and quarterly data confirms the existence of political remittance cycles, as well as using subnational rather than cross-national data (Nyblade & O’Mahony, 2014 ). However, these studies do not reveal why remittances spike, or what the effects of that spike are on electoral outcomes such as vote share, campaign financing, and political strategy.

Remittances represent a massive international financial flow that warrants more scholarly attention. While there are numerous studies on the relationship between remittances and key economic indicators, there remains much room for further work on their relationship to political outcomes in developing countries. Do remittances hasten the downfall of autocratic regimes, or do they contribute to autocratic stability? In democratic contexts, do remittances substantively influence electoral outcomes, and if so, which outcomes and how? Finally, do remittances prevent even more migration because they allow one “breadwinner from abroad” to provide for the household that remains in the homeland? While data limitations are formidable, these questions are important to the study of both international and comparative political economy.

Bilateral Trade

The argument that migrant or co-ethnic networks play an important role in international economic exchange is not novel. Greif ( 1989 , 1993 ) illustrates the role that the Maghrebi traders of the 11th century played in providing informal institutional guarantees that facilitated trade. This is but a single example. Cowen’s historical survey identifies not only the Phoenicians but also the “Spanish Jews [who] were indispensable for international commerce in the Middle Ages. The Armenians controlled the overland route between the Orient and Europe as late as the nineteenth century . Lebanese Christians developed trade between the various parts of the Ottoman empire” (Cowen, 1997 , p. 170). Rauch and Trindade ( 2002 ) provide robust empirical evidence linking the Chinese diaspora to patterns of imports and exports with their home country.

A variety of case studies document the importance of migrant networks in helping overcome problems of information asymmetries. In his study of Indian expatriates residing in the United States, Kapur ( 2014 ) documents how that community provides U.S. investors with a signal of the work ethic, labor quality, and business culture that exists in India. Likewise, Weidenbaum and Hughes ( 1996 ) chronicle the Bamboo Network—the linkages between ethnic Chinese living outside mainland China and their homeland—and how these linkages provide superior access to information and opportunities for investment.

Connections between migrant communities across countries affect cross-national investment even when these connections do not provide information about investment opportunities. In his work on the Maghrebi traders of the 11th century , Greif argues that this trading network was effective because it was able to credibly threaten collective punishment by all merchants if even one of them defected (Greif, 1989 , 1993 ). Grief shows that this co-ethnic network was able to share information regarding the past actions of actors (they could communicate a reputation)—something that was essential for the efficient functioning of markets in the absence of formal legal rules. Weidenbaum and Hughes reach a similar conclusion about the effectiveness of the Bamboo Network, remarking that “if a business owner violates an agreement, he is blacklisted. This is far worse than being sued, because the entire Chinese networks will refrain from doing business with the guilty party” (Hughes, 1996 , p. 51).

Migrants not only alter the flow of income by remitting to their countries of origin, but also influence patterns of international portfolio investment and FDI. Most existing literature on international capital allocation emphasizes monadic factors such as the importance of credible commitments and state institutional quality, failing to address explicitly dyadic phenomena that may also drive investment. Diaspora networks, in particular, facilitate cross-border investment in a number of ways. They foster a higher degree of familiarity between home and host countries, leading to a greater preference for investment in specific countries. Diaspora networks can also decrease information asymmetries in highly uncertain international capital markets in two ways. Firstly, they can provide investors with salient information about their homeland, such as consumer tastes, that can influence investment decision-making. Secondly, they can share knowledge about investment opportunities, regulation and procedures, and customs that decrease transaction costs associated with cross-border investment (Leblang, 2010 ). This place of importance for migrants suggests to the broader international political economy literature the importance of non-institutional mechanisms for channeling economic activity.

Although the hypothesized link between migrants and international investment has only recently been identified, the quantitative evidence available supports that hypothesis. Leblang ( 2010 ), using dyadic cross-sectional data, finds that diaspora networks “have both a substantively significant effect and a statistically significant effect on cross-border investment,” including international portfolio investment and FDI (p. 584). The effect of bilateral migratory flows correlates positively with the degree of information asymmetry: when informational imperfections are more pervasive in a dyad, migrants (especially the highly skilled) play a disproportionately large role in international capital allocation (Kugler, Levinthal, & Rapoport, 2017 ). Other quantitative studies find substantively similar results for FDI alone (e.g., Javorcik, Özden, Spatareanu, & Neagu, 2011 ; Aubry, Rapoport, & Reshef, 2016 ).

Many questions still remain unanswered. Firstly, does the effect of migrants on investment follow the waves of the global economy, or is it countercyclical as remittances have been shown to be? Secondly, how does this additional investment, facilitated by migrants, affect socioeconomic outcomes such as inequality, poverty, and economic development (Leblang, 2010 )? Does the participation of migrants lead to more successful FDI projects in developing countries because of their ability to break down information barriers? Within portfolio investment, do migrants lead to a preference for certain asset classes over others, and if so, what are the effects on bilateral and international capital markets? These are just a few directions in an area ripe for additional research.

Return Migration and Dual Citizenship

Besides financial flows, migrants themselves directly contribute to global flows of capital by returning to their countries of origin in large numbers. This phenomenon of return migration—or circular migration—can come in a few temporal forms, including long-term migration followed by a permanent return to a country of origin, or repeat migration in which a migrant regularly moves between destination and origin countries (Dumont & Spielvogel, 2008 ). While comparable data on return migration is scarce, some reports suggest that 20% to 50% of all immigrants leave their destination country within five years after their arrival (e.g., Borjas & Bratsberg, 1996 ; Aydemir & Robinson, 2008 ; Bratsberg, Raaum, & Sørlie, 2007 ; Dustmann & Weiss, 2007 ). An independent theoretical and empirical account of return migration does not yet exist in the literature and is beyond the scope of this paper. But in the rational actor framework, motivations to return home include a failure to realize the expected benefits of migration, changing preferences toward a migrant’s home country, achievement of a savings or other economic goal, or the opening of additional employment opportunities back home due to newly acquired experience or greater levels of economic development (Dumont & Spielvogel, 2008 ).

While most migration literature treats the country of origin as a passive actor that only provides the conditions for migration, new literature on return migration gives home country policies pride of place. Origin countries can craft policies that encourage diaspora re-engagement, incentivizing individuals to return home. Dual citizenship, for example, is an extension of extraterritorial rights, allowing migrants to retain full legal status in their home country. Dual citizenship “decreases the transaction costs associated with entering a host country’s labor market and makes it easier for migrants to return home” (Leblang, 2017 , p. 77). This leads migrants to invest their financial resources in the form of remittances back home as well as their valuable human capital. When states provide such extraterritorial rights, expatriates are 10% more likely to remit and 3% more likely to return home. Dual citizenship is also associated with a doubling of the dollar amount of remittances received by a home country (Leblang, 2017 ). These striking results suggest that in addition to the power of migrants to affect cross-border flows of money and people, countries of origin can also play a significant role.

Conclusion and Future Directions

This brief article has attempted to synthesize a broad range of literature from political science, economics, sociology, migration studies, and more to construct an account of international labor migration. To do so, the migratory process was broken down into distinct stages and decision points, focusing particularly on the decision to migrate, destination choice, and the re-engagement of migrants with their homeland. In doing so, the article also discussed the interlinkages of international migration with other fields of study in international political economy, including cross-border financial flows, trade, and investment. Through a multiplicity of approaches, we have gained a greater understanding of why people decide to move, why they decide to move to one country over another, and how and why they engage with the global economy and their homeland. Despite this intellectual progress, there remain many paths for future research at each stage of the migratory process; we highlight just a few of them here.

We know that income differentials, social ties, and local political conditions are important variables influencing the migration process. Yet the question remains: why do a small but growing number of people choose to leave while the overwhelming majority of people remain in their country of birth? Here, individual- or family-level subjective characteristics may be significant. There are a handful of observational studies that explore the relationship between subjective well-being or life satisfaction and the intention to migrate, with the nascent consensus being that life dissatisfaction increases the intention to migrate (Cai, Esipova, Oppenheimer, & Feng, 2014 ; Otrachshenko & Popova, 2014 ; Nikolova & Graham, 2015 ). But more research on intrinsic or subjective measures is needed to understand (a) their independent importance more fully and (b) how they interact with objective economic, political, and social factors. For instance, do those who are more optimistic migrate in larger numbers? Do minority individuals who feel they live in an environment in which diversity is not accepted feel a greater urge to leave home? Synthesizing these types of subjective variables and perceptions with the more prominent gravity-style models could result in a more complete picture of the international migration process.

For the “typical” migrant, one who is relatively less educated than the population in the chosen destination and does not have specialized skills, social networks are key to minimizing the risk of migrating and quickly tapping into economic opportunities in destination countries. Does this remain true for those who are highly educated? Although little empirical research exists on the topic, greater human capital and often-accompanying financial resources may operate as a substitute for the advantages offered by social networks, such as housing, overcoming linguistic barriers, and finding gainful employment. This would indicate that the “friends and family effect” is not as influential for this subset of migrants. Economic considerations, such as which destination offers the largest relative wage differential, or political considerations, such as the ease of quickly acquiring full citizenship rights, may matter more for the highly skilled. Neoclassical economic models of migration may best capture the behavior of migrants who hold human capital and who have the financial resources to independently migrate in a way that maximizes income or utility more broadly.

Since we have focused on international migration as a series of discrete decision points in this article, we have perhaps underemphasized the complexity of the physical migration process. In reality, migrants often do not pick a country and travel directly there, but travel through (perhaps several) countries of transit such as Mexico, Morocco, or Turkey along the way (Angel Castillo, 2006 ; Natter, 2013 ; Icduygu, 2005 ). There is little existing theoretical work to understand the role of transit countries in the migratory process, with much of it focusing on the potential for cooperation between destination and transit countries in managing primarily illegal immigration (Kahana & Lecker, 2005 ; Djajic & Michael, 2014 ; Djajic & Michael, 2016 ). Another related strand of the literature focuses on how wealthy destination countries are “externalizing” their immigration policy, encompassing a broader part of the migratory process than simply crossing a physically demarcated border (Duvell, 2012 ; Menjivar, 2014 ). But many questions remain, such as the following: how do we understand those who desire to enter, say, the United States, but instead relocate permanently to Mexico along the way? How do countries of transit handle the pressure of transit migrants, and how does this affect economic and political outcomes in these countries?

Finally, the focus of nearly all literature on international migration (and this article as a byproduct) implicitly views advanced economies as the only prominent destinations. However, this belies the fact that 38% of all migration stays within the “Global South” (World Bank, 2016 ). While there is certainly some literature on this phenomenon (see Ratha & Shaw, 2007 ; Gindling, 2009 ; Hujo & Piper, 2007 ), international political economy scholars have yet to sufficiently tackle this topic. The overarching research question here is: do the same push and pull factors that influence the decision to migrate and destination choice apply to those who migrate within the Global South? Do we need to construct new theories of international migration with less emphasis on factors such as wage differentials and political tolerance, or are these sufficient to understand this facet of the phenomenon? If we fail to answer these questions, we may miss explaining a significant proportion of international migration with its own consequences and policy implications.

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1. Our use of the term international labor migration follows academic and legal conventions; we use the term migration to refer to the voluntary movement of people across national borders, either in a temporary or permanent fashion. This excludes any discussion of refugees, asylum seekers, or any other groups that are forced to migrate.

2. We do not have space in this article to delve into the theoretical and empirical work unpacking the effect of demographic characteristics—age, gender, marital status, household size, and so forth on the migration decision and on subsequent flows of migrants. For comprehensive reviews, see Lichter ( 1983 ), Morrison and Lichter ( 1988 ); United Nations Population Division ( 2013 ); and Zaiceva and Zimmerman ( 2014 ).

3. Zelinsky ( 1971 ) originally identified this relationship and termed it mobility transition curve . A wealth of empirical work supports Zelinsky’s descriptive theory in a number of contexts (see Akerman, 1976 ; Gould, 1979 ; Hatton & Williamson, 1994 ; and Dao et al., 2016 ).

4. For a review of the arguments as well as some empirical tests, see Miller and Peters ( 2018 ) and Docquier, Lodigiani, Rapoport, and Schiff ( 2018 ).

5. Transparency International. “What is corruption?”

6. For example, former United Kingdom Independence Party leader Nigel Farage has called for the United Kingdom to adopt an immigration system that only allows in highly skilled migrants (“UKIP launches immigration policy”). In 2014, US President Barack Obama emphasized that he wanted to attract international students to American universities and that they “create jobs, businesses, and industries right here in America” (USA Today: “Full text: Obama’s immigration speech”). A key issue in Germany’s 2018 government formation was the creation of skill-based migration laws (Severin & Martin, 2018 ).

7. For a more comprehensive review, see Rapoport and Docquier ( 2006 ); and Adams ( 2011 ).

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Global migration’s impact and opportunity

Migration is a key feature of our increasingly interconnected world . It has also become a flashpoint for debate in many countries, which underscores the importance of understanding the patterns of global migration and the economic impact that is created when people move across the world’s borders. A new report from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), People on the move: Global migration’s impact and opportunity , aims to fill this need.

Refugees might be the face of migration in the media, but 90 percent of the world’s 247 million migrants have moved across borders voluntarily, usually for economic reasons. Voluntary migration flows are typically gradual, placing less stress on logistics and on the social fabric of destination countries than refugee flows. Most voluntary migrants are working-age adults, a characteristic that helps raise the share of the population that is economically active in destination countries.

By contrast, the remaining 10 percent are refugees and asylum seekers who have fled to another country to escape conflict and persecution. Roughly half of the world’s 24 million refugees are in the Middle East and North Africa, reflecting the dominant pattern of flight to a neighboring country. But the recent surge of arrivals in Europe has focused the developed world’s attention on this issue. A companion report, Europe’s new refugees: A road map for better integration outcomes , examines the challenges and opportunities confronting individual countries.

While some migrants travel long distances from their origin countries, most migration still involves people moving to neighboring countries or to countries in the same part of the world (exhibit). About half of all migrants globally have moved from developing to developed countries—indeed, this is the fastest-growing type of movement. Almost two-thirds of the world’s migrants reside in developed countries, where they often fill key occupational shortages . From 2000 to 2014, immigrants contributed 40 to 80 percent of labor-force growth in major destination countries.

Most migration consists of people moving to another country in the same part of the world.

Moving more labor to higher-productivity settings boosts global GDP. Migrants of all skill levels contribute to this effect, whether through innovation and entrepreneurship or through freeing up natives for higher-value work. In fact, migrants make up just 3.4 percent of the world’s population, but MGI’s research finds that they contribute nearly 10 percent of global GDP. They contributed roughly $6.7 trillion to global GDP in 2015—some $3 trillion more than they would have produced in their origin countries. Developed nations realize more than 90 percent of this effect.

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Employment rates are slightly lower for immigrants than for native workers in top destinations, but this varies by skill level and by region of origin. Extensive academic evidence shows that immigration does not harm native employment or wages, although there can be short-term negative effects if there is a large inflow of migrants to a small region, if migrants are close substitutes for native workers, or if the destination economy is experiencing a downturn.

Realizing the benefits of immigration hinges on how well new arrivals are integrated into their destination country’s labor market and into society. Today immigrants tend to earn 20 to 30 percent less than native-born workers. But if countries narrow that wage gap to just 5 to 10 percent by integrating immigrants more effectively across various aspects of education, housing, health, and community engagement, they could generate an additional boost of $800 billion to $1 trillion to worldwide economic output annually. This is a relatively conservative goal, but it can nevertheless produce broader positive effects, including lower poverty rates and higher overall productivity in destination economies.

Global migration’s impact and opportunity

People on the move: Migrant voices

A series of portraits tells migrants’ stories—part of the 'i am a migrant' campaign.

The economic, social, and civic dimensions of integration need to be addressed holistically. MGI looked at how the leading destinations perform on 18 indicators and found that no country has achieved strong integration outcomes across all of these dimensions, though some do better than others. But in destinations around the world, many stakeholders are trying new approaches. We identify more than 180 promising interventions that offer useful models for improving integration. The private sector has a central role to play in this effort—and incentives to do so. When companies participate, they stand to gain access to new markets and pools of new talent.

The stakes are high. The success or failure of integration can reverberate for many years, influencing whether second-generation immigrants become fully participating citizens who reach their full productive potential or remain in a poverty trap.

Jonathan Woetzel , Jacques Bughin , and James Manyika are directors of the McKinsey Global Institute, where Anu Madgavkar is a partner and Ashwin Hasyagar is a fellow; Khaled Rifai is a partner in McKinsey’s New York office, Frank Mattern is a senior partner in the Frankfurt office, and Tarek Elmasry and Amadeo Di Lodovico are senior partners in the Dubai office.

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World Migration Report 2022

This report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides a detailed overview of migration and the state of mobility worldwide. The 2022 report, which marks the eleventh edition of IOM’s World Migration Report series, presents critical data and research on migration trends and emerging migration policy issues. The report specifically considers the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the state of global migration. Despite the pandemic restricting movement for millions of people in 2020, the report finds a drastic increase in internal displacement due to natural disasters, conflict, and violence worldwide, with the number of displaced people rising to 40.5 million, compared to 31.5 million in 2019. The report discusses several additional topics related to global migration, including the relationship between mobility and climate change, peace and development, human trafficking in migration pathways, the prevalence of disinformation surrounding migration, and more.

Chapters include: 

  • Chapter 1: Report Overview: Technological, Geopolitical and Environmental Transformations Shaping Our Migration and Mobility Futures
  • Chapter 2: Migration and Migrants: A Global Overview
  • Chapter 3: Migration and Migrants: Regional Dimensions and Developments
  • Chapter 4: Migration Research and Analysis: Recent United Nations Contributions
  • Chapter 5: The Great Disrupter: COVID-19’s Impact on Migration, Mobility and Migrants Globally
  • Chapter 6: Peace and Security as Drivers of Stability, Development and Safe Migration
  • Chapter 7: International Migration as a Stepladder of Opportunity: What Do the Global Data Actually Show?
  • Chapter 8: Disinformation About Migration: An Age-Old Issue With New Tech Dimensions
  • Chapter 9: Migration and the Slow-Onset Impacts of Climate Change: Taking Stock and Taking Action
  • Chapter 10: Human Trafficking in Migration Pathways: Trends, Challenges and New Forms of Cooperation
  • Chapter 11: Artificial Intelligence, Migration and Mobility: Implications for Policy and Practice
  • Chapter 12: Reflections on Migrants’ Contributions in an Era of Increasing Disruption and Disinformation

The World Migration Report 2022 also includes an interactive version of the report, allowing users to explore key migration data through visualizations and comprehensive maps.

World Migration Report 2022. International Organization for Migration 2021. https://publications.iom.int/books/world-migration-report-2022 .

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  • Published: 08 August 2018

Migration and health: a global public health research priority

  • Kolitha Wickramage 1 ,
  • Jo Vearey 2 ,
  • Anthony B. Zwi 3 ,
  • Courtland Robinson 4 &
  • Michael Knipper 5  

BMC Public Health volume  18 , Article number:  987 ( 2018 ) Cite this article

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With 244 million international migrants, and significantly more people moving within their country of birth, there is an urgent need to engage with migration at all levels in order to support progress towards global health and development targets. In response to this, the 2nd Global Consultation on Migration and Health– held in Colombo, Sri Lanka in February 2017 – facilitated discussions concerning the role of research in supporting evidence-informed health responses that engage with migration.


Drawing on discussions with policy makers, research scholars, civil society, and United Nations agencies held in Colombo, we emphasize the urgent need for quality research on international and domestic (in-country) migration and health to support efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs aim to ‘leave no-one behind’ irrespective of their legal status. An ethically sound human rights approach to research that involves engagement across multiple disciplines is required. Researchers need to be sensitive when designing and disseminating research findings as data on migration and health may be misused, both at an individual and population level. We emphasize the importance of creating an ‘enabling environment’ for migration and health research at national, regional and global levels, and call for the development of meaningful linkages – such as through research reference groups – to support evidence-informed inter-sectoral policy and priority setting processes.

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Migration and health are increasingly recognized as a global public health priority [ 1 ]. Incorporating mixed flows of economic, forced, and irregular migration, migration has increased in extent and complexity. Globally, it is estimated that there are 244 million international migrants and significantly more internal migrants – people moving within their country of birth [ 2 ]. Whilst the majority of international migrants move between countries of the ‘global south’ [ 2 ], these movements between low and middle-income countries remain a “blind spot” for policymakers, researchers and the media, with disproportionate political and policy attention focused on irregular migration to high-income countries. Migration is increasingly recognized as a determinant of health [ 3 , 4 , 5 ]. However, the bidirectional relationship between migration and health remains poorly understood, and action on migration and health remains limited, negatively impacting not only those who migrate but also sending, receiving, and ‘left-behind’ communities [ 1 ].

In February 2017, an international group of researchers participated in the 2nd Global Consultation on Migration and Health held in Colombo, Sri Lanka with the objectives of sharing lessons learned, good practices, and research in addressing the relationship between migration and health [ 1 ]. Hosted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Sri Lankan government, the Global Consultation brought together governments, civil society, international organizations, and academic representatives in order to address migration and health. The Consultation facilitated engagement with the health needs of migrants, reconciling the focus on long-term economic and structural migration - both within and across international borders - with that of acute, large-scale displacement flows that may include refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons and undocumented migrants.

The Consultation was organised around inputs on three thematic areas: Global Health [ 6 ]; Vulnerability and Resilience [ 7 ]; and, Development [ 8 ]. These inputs guided working group discussions exploring either policy, research, or monitoring in relation to migration and health. This paper reports on the outcomes of the research group after an extensive period of debate at the Consultation and over the subsequent 9 months. We identify key issues that should guide research practice in the field of migration and health, and outline strategies to support the development of evidence-informed policies and practices at global, regional, national, and local levels [ 9 ]. Debate and discussion at the Consultation, and below, were guided by two key questions:

What are the opportunities and challenges, and the essential components associated with developing a research agenda on migration and health?

What values and approaches should guide the development of a national research agenda and data collection system on migration and health?

Our discussions emphasized that international targets, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Universal Health Coverage (UHC; Health target 3.8 of the SDGs), are unlikely to be achieved if the dynamics of migration are not better understood and incorporated in policy and programming. To address this, and in order to improve policy and programming, a renewed focus on enhancing our understanding of the linkages between both international and internal migration and health, as well as the outcomes and impacts arising from them, is urgently needed.

Migration and health research: Leave no-one behind

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identify migration as both a catalyst and a driver for sustainable development. A clarion call of the SDGs is to ‘leave no-one behind’, irrespective of their legal status, in order to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC) for all [ 10 ]. In many countries, however, equitable access to health services is considered as a goal only in relation to citizens. Additionally, internal migration is left out of programming and policy interventions designed to support UHC for all. While UHC aims at ensuring “everyone” can access affordable health systems without increasing the risk of financial ruin or impoverishment, the formulation of UHC remains unclear regarding non-nationals/non-citizens [ 11 ]. While many international declarations state that the right to health applies to all, including migrants and non-citizens, many national policies exclude these groups in whole or part [ 12 ].

In addition to international and internal migration, the health concerns associated with labour migration require attention; migrant workers are estimated to account for 150.3 million of the 244 million international migrants [ 2 ]. While labour migration leads to significant economic gains for countries of origin and destination, true developmental benefits are only realised with access to safe, orderly and humane migration practice [ 13 ]. Many migrant labourers work in conditions of precarious employment, within ‘difficult, degrading and dangerous’ jobs yet little is known about the health status, health outcomes, and resilience/vulnerability trajectories of these migrant workers and their ‘left behind’ families. Many undergo health assessments as a pre-condition for travel and migration, yet many such programs remain unlinked to national public health systems [ 14 ].

Our discussions highlighted the complex and heterogeneous nature of research on migration and health, with particular concerns raised around the emphasis on international rather than internal migration, in view of the greater volume of the latter. The need for a multilevel research agenda to guide appropriate action on international and internal migration, health, and development was highlighted. In order to account for immediate, long-term and inter-generational impacts on health outcomes, migration and health research should: (1) incorporate the different phases of migration (Fig. 1 ); (2) adopt a life-course approach; and, (3) integrate a social determinants of health (SDH) approach.

figure 1

Factors influencing health and wellbeing of migrants and their families along the phases of migration

Unease was expressed about the increasingly polarised political viewpoints on migration, often propagated by nationalist and populist movements, which present real challenges to researchers. This may also be associated with a reluctance to finance research exploring discriminatory policies that limit the access of international migrants to health services and other positive determinants of health, including work and housing.

The increasing complexity of global, regional, and national migration trends, as well as disagreements about the correct way to define and label different types of migrants, create additional difficulties within an already tense and politically contested research domain. Associated with this are the particular challenges associated with collecting and utilising data on ‘irregular migrants’ – international migrants currently without the documentation required to legally be in a particular country. These undocumented migrants, often living in the shadows of society, are more vulnerable to poor health outcomes due to restrictive policies on access to health and social services, to safe working and living conditions, and/or a reluctance to access services for fear of arrest, detention and/or deportation [ 15 , 16 ]. Whilst arguments for improving access to health care for marginalised migrants are based on principles of equity, public health, and human rights, the importance of research on the economic implications of limiting access to care for international migrants was highlighted [ 2 ]. This challenging terrain generated a myriad of research questions during the group discussions (Table 1 ).

Towards a framework for advancing migration and health research

The consultation took into account the extensive research experience of the group (see Appendix ), as well as engagement with key literature and context-specific evidence [see, for example 1–7]. Discussion led to the development of a framework that brings together what we identify as the key components for advancing a global, multi-level, migration and health research agenda (Fig. 2 ). Two areas of focus to advance the migration and health research agenda were identified: (1) exploring health issues across various migrant typologies , and (2) improving our understanding of the interactions between migration and health . Advancing research in both areas is essential if we are to improve our understanding of how to respond to the complex linkages between both international and internal migration and health. This, we argue, can be achieved by moving away from an approach that exceptionalises migration and migrants, to one that integrates migration into overall health systems research, design, and delivery, and conceptualises this as a way to support the achievement of good health for all.

figure 2

Advancing Migration and Health Research at National, Regional and Global Levels: a conceptual framework

Building from these focus areas, our framework outlines the essential components for the development and application of multi-level research on migration and health. First are key principles underlying research practice: promoting interdisciplinary, human rights oriented, ethically sound approaches for working with migrants. Second are multi-level stewardship functions needed to meaningfully link migration and health research to policy practice and priority setting, [ 17 ]. This includes establishing knowledge exchange mechanisms, financing, commissioning, and utilising research to guide evidence informed policies. This may better enable health systems to become ‘migration aware’ [ 18 ] or what the International Organization for Migration (IOM) terms ‘mobility competent’ - sensitive to health and migration [ 1 ].

Migration and health research: Two key focus areas

Migrant typologies.

To assist in understanding the associations between migration and health, our research must find ways to better capture and engage with complex, dynamic, and often intersecting migrant typologies. We must be careful not to cluster migrants and their associated lived experiences, to simple, reductionist categories such as internal versus cross-border or documented versus undocumented, or even refugee versus economic migrant [ 19 ]. However, we do need a way of categorising different migrant groups when, for example, exploring epidemiological profiles and associated burdens of disease. To do this, we need to develop a set of nuanced yet flexible typologies that are able to capture the contextually relevant factors affecting migrant experiences, at both the individual and population levels. As outlined in Table 2 , this will require careful consideration of multiple factors to assist us in improving our understandings of the ways in which diverse migrant groups are associated, or not, with various health and wellbeing outcomes. Definitions that are based on immigration status - such as ‘refugee’, ‘immigrant’ or ‘asylum seeker’ - will incorporate diverse sub-groups, often with different levels of health vulnerabilities and resiliencies based on their migration trajectory. For instance, a refugee entering a country with an offer of permanent resettlement or with a recognized temporary protected status, will have different opportunities and challenges than an asylum-seeker, or migrant worker, crossing a border possibly without documents or a clear pathway to needed healthcare and protections. Each of these migrating populations carry different health burdens (and resiliencies) from their country of origin, their social position and access to resources, and their migration experiences; and each will face different barriers and uncertainties as they seek access to services, support and integrate in host communities. The definitions of migrant groups adopted by states not only need clear elucidation but also need to reflect the context-specific conditions affecting health access and protection. In Europe, for example, the entitlements to health care for asylum seekers differ by country [ 20 ]. The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) health strand was developed as a tool to monitor policies affecting migrant integration in 38 different countries [ 18 ]. It measures the equitability of policies relating to four issues: migrants’ entitlements to health services; accessibility of health services for migrants; responsiveness to migrants’ needs; and measures to achieve change. Such tools are important steps in assessing migrant integration and for implementing migrant-sensitive policies that are aligned with the person-centred UHC principles.

An awareness of this complexity underlies the need to document multiple migrant voices and migration experiences along the diverse trajectories when exploring associations between migration and health. This could, for instance, involve capturing the voices of children and other family members ‘left-behind’ as a result of labour migration, or of seasonal migrant workers. Research into the issues, policies and programmes that influence health and health literacy among migrant populations and the role that communities, households, industries, schools, and transnational networks play in promoting health also needs exploration.

Key challenges exist when attempting to use and compare migration data internationally, as a result of differences in the definition of who is an international migrant, non-national, or internal migrant; inconsistent data sources; and limited data coverage. A recent analysis of the availability, reliability and comparability of data on international migration flows in European countries noted that “comparing migration flows in various countries would be like comparing pears and apples” [ 21 ]. The use of standard indicators can result in unreliable data if migration dynamics are not considered. For example, measures of life expectancy are skewed if international migrants return to their home countries when they are seriously ill, but their departure is not accounted for in vital registration or other systems [ 21 ]. Reporting that is based on incomplete, poor quality or non-comparable population data that fails to measure and/or report migration can give rise to misleading conclusions and limits the validity of data interpretation.

Research at the nexus of migration and health

We recognise the bi-directionality of the relationship between migration and health. Our research should explore how different forms of migration influence health – at both individual and population levels - and how health status affects decisions to migrate and shapes post-migration experience. Migration trajectories can positively or negatively impact health outcomes, just as health status can affect migration outcomes; this two-way relationship should be better reflected in research. To support this, we must be sure to differentiate carefully between different migrant typologies – for example within or across international borders and for what purpose: work, family reunification, escape from persecution, flight from conflict or natural disaster, or to seek asylum. Each of these operates within substantially different contexts whether one takes the migrant and their health into account, or their rights and entitlements, or how they are seen by the dominant society or community to which they migrate. We recognise that being a migrant is not in itself a risk to health: it is the conditions associated with migration that may increase vulnerability to poor health [ 4 ]. Owing to the ways in which people move and the spaces they traverse or at which they arrive, migrants may reside in - or pass through - ‘spaces of vulnerability’ [ 22 ] – key spaces associated with potentially negative health outcomes – including along transport corridors, urban slums, construction sites, commercial farms, fishing communities, mines, and detention centres. Such spaces may contain a combination of social, economic and physical conditions that may increase the likelihood of exposure to violence and abuse and/or acquisition of communicable or non-communicable disease [ 22 ]. The daily stressors that may be experienced in these spaces are increasingly acknowledged to affect emotional wellbeing and mental health [ 23 ].

As migration is an ever-changing dynamic process, generating and maintaining timely and comparable migration data and improving relevant information systems is important. ‘Quick wins’ in obtaining migration and health data by integrating migration variables into existing national demographic and health surveys, for instance, were highlighted. National disease control programs such as tuberculosis, HIV and malaria control programs should also be encouraged to collect data on internal and international migration, especially in cross-border areas. Communicable disease control remains a key health concern associated with human migration. Our discussions recognised the importance of embracing systems-theory approach for improving understanding of how migration influences not only disease transmission but also health promotion, and health-care seeking behaviours. The importance of collecting such data with strict adherence to research ethics and human rights was emphasised.

Towards a multilevel migration and health research agenda

To effectively inform policies and programs on migration and health, it is essential to invest in evidence generation through research at local, national, regional, and global levels. Identified approaches include the establishment of research reference groups at each level to support, guide, and connect the development and application of research to support evidence-informed policy making at multiple levels. Mapping and analysis of key stakeholders, migration patterns, existing legal frameworks, data source, and research output via bibliometric analysis is needed. Multi-level migration and health policy and priority setting processes must be guided by interdisciplinary and multisectoral thinking in order to address the multiple determinants associated with the health of both internal and cross-border migrants.

Key constituencies need to be mobilised from academia, civil society, international organizations, the private sector including employer groups, trade unions and migrant worker networks. These groups may also play a role in commissioning or directly undertaking applied research in order to advance better outcomes for migrants and communities in both places of origin and destination. High-level political leadership and health and development champions should raise the visibility of migration and health research. It is important to utilise existing research structures and resources to support the development of a research agenda on migration and health, as well as to seek support for the development of dedicated research commissions on migration and health at multiple levels in order to harness evidence to drive policy-making and programme formation. For instance, the Government of Sri Lanka, with the technical cooperation of IOM, commissioned a National Migration Health Research Study in 2010 to explore health impacts of inbound, outbound, and internal migrant flows including those of left-behind migrant families. The research findings ultimately contributed to the formulation of an evidence-informed National Migration Health Policy and national action plan in 2013 [ 24 ]. The research was led through local research institutions and research process were linked to an inter-ministerial and inter-agency process chaired by the Minister of Health. This evidence informed policy making process also led to a number of national programs such as ‘the national border health program’ in 2013, revitalizing domestic legal frameworks on health security, and advancing health protection of migrant workers at regional inter-governmental initiatives such as the Colombo Process.

At the regional level, consultative processes are required to develop common approaches to migration and health, including communicable disease surveillance, monitoring of interventions, applied research collaboration across national borders and capacity building – particularly interdisciplinary postgraduate training. For instance, the Mekong Basin Disease Surveillance (MBDS) Consortium is a sub-regional co-operation spearheaded by health ministries from member countries Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam [ 25 ]. In relation to labour migration, regional processes – such as the Colombo Process [ 26 ] - should explore the management of overseas employment and contractual labour. In addition, migrant health-related concerns should be emphasised in the negotiation of free trade agreements that increase migration between states, such as the Post-2015 Health Development Agenda for a “ Healthy, Caring and Sustainable Community ” initiative of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) [ 27 ] and efforts to implement the “Health in all Policies” strategy of the European Union [ 7 ].

Methods to map human mobility for public health preparedness and response stemming from outbreaks and other health emergencies are needed in order to provide accurate information on population movements, for monitoring the progression of outbreaks, predicting future spread and allocating resources for surveillance and containment strategies. Human mobility was a critical factor in the spread of Ebola virus in the West African region.

A coordinated global research agenda on migration and health is urgently needed. Potential elements include collaboration with stakeholders involved in implementing global initiatives – such as the SDGs – to ensure that indicators and data collection strategies are sensitive to both internal and cross-border migration, and health related issues. Identification of datasets and data collection processes that can be adapted and mined for disaggregated health data related to migration are also crucial in advancing the evidence base. We support the development of a sustainable global reference group that can share research evidence, expertise and experience, develop methodological and ethical guidelines, undertake multi-country studies, provide training and build a global knowledge hub in migration and health. Such a group can also mobilise funders and development partners, collaborate with scientific and professional associations, and engage with journals and publishers to create awareness on the need to better promote migration and health research.

The ‘Migration, Health, and Development Research Initiative’ (MHADRI) is a global network of academics and other research partners who aim to advance migration and health research practice [ 28 ]. The research network was formed around the need to build a global alliance of migration and health researchers and provide a platform to share, collaborate, develop, mentor, advocate and disseminate inter-disciplinary research at the nexus of health and migration. A key goal of the network is to enable researchers from developing nations the opportunity to collaborate and promote research in the Global South. The network has grown to encompass 100 researchers globally, across diverse disciplines, geographic areas and stages of career. A global reference group would be well placed to develop good practice guides on data collection systems, research methods and ethics; research translation and dissemination; and, policy integration strategies.

Research principles

We identified core principles that should guide research on migration and health, and work with migrant populations: an ethically sound human rights approach to research that involves engagement across multiple disciplines. Researchers need to be sensitive when designing and disseminating research findings as data on migration and health may be misused, both at an individual and population level. Key questions related to how researchers can exercise their duty of care as they engage in research, and how we can promote careful use of data and research to make sure it does more good than harm. Activities associated with international migration sometimes take place in a climate of victim blaming, othering, and stigmatisation that prioritises purported national security concerns [ 29 ]. Pressing concerns were identified that relate to the ways in which researchers can navigate this increasingly challenging environment, and how trust can be established among different stakeholders – including with international migrant groups. Securitization agendas also affect the health of migrants by excluding, discriminating and/or blaming migrants as vectors of disease. Ethical approaches to research, with a clear commitment to universal human rights, are therefore paramount in a climate of increasingly restrictive immigration regimes.

Discussions also highlighted the challenges associated with the collection of data with and from migrant populations. These include sampling, biases, and practical barriers such as language and culture, as well as the challenges inherent in reaching people who are often highly marginalised and potentially criminalised. Particular attention needs to be given to ethical issues: protecting confidentiality and ensuring that participation in research does not have an adverse impact on migrants, especially irregular migrants, and that participants gain access to relevant services if required. The development of meaningful partnerships and respectful research practice with actors involved in the migration process will also improve the quality, reliability, legitimacy, and use of the data generated.

Contributions from a range of disciplines – such as anthropology, demography, sociology, law, political science, psychology, policy analysis, public health, and epidemiology – are required to unpack the complex relationships between migration and health. Approaches to “slow research” [ 30 ] may help increase the sensitivity of epistemologies and methods to local realities, intricate dynamics, and the multiple voices and perceptions of migrants, health professionals and other individuals involved [ 24 ]. However, the lack of dedicated research units, institutes or centres on migration and health - especially within lower-income country contexts - require existing researchers and scholars to consolidate and better engage with sub-regional, regional and global research networks to ensure capacity building, mentoring, and support. Sensitising the donor community to the migration and health agenda, especially those funding research, is paramount. Curriculum development and teaching support for building the next generation of migration and health researchers is critical to successfully building and sustaining future research on migration and health.

Stewardship elements

We discussed the importance of developing appropriate research translation and engagement activities in order to support key, identified stewardship functions [ 17 ] at the global, regional, national and local levels. Key gaps in stewardship related to the lack of major funding mechanisms for research at national, regional, and global levels, and the need to invest in capacity building for emerging researchers through training programs and support, especially for researchers in lower-income country settings. Collaboration is required to support relationships among researchers and with relevant stakeholders, particularly with migrant communities. This includes building inclusive migration and health research networks, developing communities of practice, and supporting collaborations with those working on other global health priorities. Our research also needs to include the experiences of service providers who engage with various migrant populations, such as those within the health care sectors, border management, law enforcement, and labour migration. The development of effective research translation and public engagement strategies for sharing research findings is critical: not only to shape multi-level policy processes but also public and political opinion.

There was clear consensus on our commitment to enhancing the quality and breadth of multi-level research evidence to support the development of improved responses to migration and health. The importance of an ‘enabling environment’ for migration and health research at local, national, regional and global levels was emphasised, as was the development of meaningful linkages – such as through research reference groups – to support evidence-informed and intersectoral policy and priority setting processes. Our research needs to be underpinned by a human rights approach to health and sound ethical practice. With adequate funding, capacity development, and support for academic freedom, we can improve the evidence base to guide policy and programming for migration and health at multiple levels and in so doing contribute to improving health for all.


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Members of the research stream at the 2nd Global Consultation on Migration and Health who participated and contributed to the discussions (see Appendix ).

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Migration Health Division, International Organization for Migration, United Nations Migration Agency, Geneva, Switzerland

Kolitha Wickramage

African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand and Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh, PO Box 76, Wits, 2050, South Africa

Health, Rights and Development (HEARD@UNSW), School of Social Science, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, 2052, Australia

Anthony B. Zwi

Center for Humanitarian Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, MD, USA

Courtland Robinson

Institute of the History of Medicine, University Justus Liebig Giessen, Iheringstr. 6, 35392, Giessen, Germany

Michael Knipper

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All authors contributed to structuring and facilitating the research stream at the Global Consultation. KW, JV, AZ, CR, MK documented and synthesized the key themes emergent from the working groups and prepared ‘mind maps’. KW authored a section in the final report from the Global Consultation on behalf of the research stream, on which this article is based. JV wrote first draft of the article. KW and JV revised the article based on very helpful comments from two reviewers. All authors reviewed and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Kolitha Wickramage .

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The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

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Members of the research stream at the 2nd Global Consultation on Migration and Health

In alphabetical order:

Ibrahim Abubakar (Director, Institute for Global Health, University College London, United Kingdom)

Anjali Borhade (Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Public Health, India)

Chee-khoon Chan (Research Associate, University of Malaya, Malaysia)

Julia Puebla Fortier (Executive Director, Diversity Rx - Resources for Cross Cultural Health Care)

Charles Hui (Associate Professor of Paediatrics and Chief of Infectious Diseases, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario)

Michael Knipper (Associate Professor, Institute of the History of Medicine of the University of Giessen, Germany)

Michela Martini (Migration Health Regional Specialist, IOM Regional Office for Horn, East and Southern Africa, Nairobi, Kenya)

Moeketsi Modisenyane, National Department of Health, South Africa

Davide Mosca (Director, Migration Health Division, IOM, Geneva, Switzerland)

Kevin Pottie (Associate Professor, Faculty of Medicine, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario)

Bayard Roberts (Director, The Centre for Health and Social Change at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, United Kingdom)

William Courtland Robinson (Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg, School of Public Health, USA)

Chesmal Siriwardhana (Associate Professor, London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine)

Ursula Trummer (Head, Center for Health and Migration, Vienna, Austria)

Jo Vearey (Associate Professor, African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS), University of the Witwatersrand)

Kolitha Wickramage (Migration Health and Epidemiology Coordinator, IOM, Manila, Philippines)

Anthony Zwi (Professor of Global Health and Development, The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia)

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Wickramage, K., Vearey, J., Zwi, A.B. et al. Migration and health: a global public health research priority. BMC Public Health 18 , 987 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-018-5932-5

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Rohingya refugees walk along a road

Human migration sparked by wars, disasters, and now climate

Homo sapiens have been on the move from almost their beginnings. Climate-caused floods, drought, and water shortages will likely join the list of reasons to migrate.

Migration is defined as “movement from one country, place or locality to another.” Ever since the earliest humans began to spread from Africa, humans have been on the move. Even today, 3 percent of the world’s population—at least 258 million people— live outside of their country of origin . Whether voluntary or forced, migration has profoundly shaped our world.

First migrants

The earliest migrants were ancient humans who originated on the African continent. Their spread to Eurasia and elsewhere remains a matter of significant scientific controversy. The earliest fossils of recognizable Homo sapiens were found in Ethiopia and are approximately 200,000 years old.

The “out of Africa” theory posits that around 60,000 years ago, Homo sapiens dispersed across Eurasia, where they met and eventually replaced other human ancestors like Neanderthals. However, that theory has been challenged by evidence of migrations from Africa to Eurasia 120,000 years ago. Either way, early humans are thought to have migrated to Asia either across a strait that lies between the Horn of Africa and what is now Yemen, or via the Sinai Peninsula. After spreading to southeast Asia, early humans are thought to have migrated to Australia, which shared a landmass with New Guinea at the time, then to Europe, then to the Americas.

Those migrations were likely driven by climate, food availability, and other environmental factors. As time passed and cultures became less nomadic, war and colonialism began to fuel migrations, too. The ancient Greeks expanded their dynasty with a laundry list of colonies. Ancient Rome sent its citizens as far north as Britain. Imperial China, too, used its military to expand its borders and house refugees in ever farther-flung borderlands.

Reasons to flee

Migration has long been characterized and complicated by war, enslavement, and persecution. Jews fled their ancestral lands after waves of exile and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., creating a widespread diaspora. At least 12 million African s were enslaved and forced to relocate to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade between 1500 and the 1860s. In the aftermath of World War II in 1945, hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and other civilians became displaced persons , emigrating to Western Europe, the territory of British-Mandate Palestine that later became Israel, and the United States. And at the end of the Vietnam War, over 125,000 people from Vietnam migrated to the United States in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

They weren’t the last: Migration continues in the 21st century, driven by famine, natural disasters, and human rights abuses. Beginning in 2013, migrants from North Africa and the Middle East began to move in increasingly larger numbers into Europe, seeking to escape poverty and political instability in their homelands. The migrant crisis stretched European resources thin, fueling xenophobia and frustration even in welcoming states. And hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people have been forced to migrate to Bangladesh from Myanmar despite centuries of history in their homeland .

In the future, the changing climate may fuel even more mass movements. A 2018 World Bank report found that more than 143 million people may soon become “climate migrants,” driven from their homes by floods, droughts, and water scarcity. No matter the reasons, migration will likely continue as long as there are humans—and as long as there are places to go.

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A finer picture of global migration reveals complex patterns

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A finer picture of global migration reveals complex patterns

Societal factors override climate considerations

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Migration Research Paper

View sample migration research paper. Browse other  research paper examples and check the list of history research paper topics for more inspiration. If you need a history research paper written according to all the academic standards, you can always turn to our experienced writers for help. This is how your paper can get an A! Feel free to contact our custom writing service for professional assistance. We offer high-quality assignments for reasonable rates.

Early humans spanned the globe in ways that are still unclear to us, but we do know migration has been a constant feature of human history. Colonization, trade, military action, and slavery became important drivers of migration with the rise of agriculture and settled states. In the last two centuries, long-distance labor migration has grown enormously, giving rise to laws that attempt to regulate human mobility.

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Humans are a mobile species. The spread of Homo erectus out of eastern Africa from 4 to 1 million years ago, and the subsequent spread of Homo sapiens that began within Africa by at least 100,000 BP (before the present) and departed Africa by 60,000 BP are the clearest examples of this. Our ability to relocate and adapt to new surroundings is inseparable from our rise as one of the dominant life forms on the planet. Our knowledge of these early migrations is sketchy. It relies on painstaking research in archaeology, linguistics, and genetics. Many of the results are still tentative, complicated by the fact that languages, genes, and material culture may or may not have moved together.

Early Humans

Scholars offer several theories to explain human migration from Africa. Early accounts of the journey out of Africa proposed that humans followed large herds of grazing animals directly overland into Europe and across Central Asia. But the fact that humans arrived in New Guinea and Australia about 50,000 BP suggests another movement across the tropical belt, perhaps hugging the coastline with the help of rafts. This hypothesis can be further investigated with underwater archaeology, because sea levels have risen and most of what was the coastline of 50,000 years ago is now underwater. Similarly, the only clear archaeological evidence to date the migrations into the Americas is from 14,000 BP, found in what is now Chile, about as far distant as can be from the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska that is presumed to be the route by which humans arrived in the Americas. Most scholars hesitate to date the arrival in the Americas much earlier than this material evidence. But some linguists and geneticists have suggested that the migrations may have begun as long as 35,000 years ago. Whatever the earliest date of arrival, it seems reasonable to suggest that migrants arrived in the Americas via several waves rather than just one, culminating in the most recent waves across the Atlantic from Africa and Europe over the past 500 years, and from Asia over the past 150 years.

As our knowledge grows, it appears increasingly likely that early migrations were not just a single wave that slowly spread across the Earth, but a complex pattern of multiple directions, reversals, and replacements. This is most apparent when we look at scattered pockets of isolated groups around the world, whose languages have no common origins with any of their contemporary or known historical neighbors. Examples include the Basques in northern Spain, the Yeniseians in northeast Siberia, and the peoples speaking North Caucasian and Kartvelian languages between the Black and Caspian seas. These groups are likely the remnants of early populations that resided in these areas before the arrival of newer migrants anywhere between 35,000 to 10,000 years ago. Unsurprisingly, little is known about the origins of these earliest populations. They may have moved across Eurasia directly from Africa. They may have radiated from a hearth of early humanity in the Caucasian mountains and eastern Anatolia. Some scholars have even speculated that the isolated languages they spoke are part of the Dene-Caucasian language group, which includes Chinese and Tibetan. This would push the origins of their languages to the Southeast Asian highlands, followed by a subsequent dispersal that moved north across Eurasia. Similarly, the later migrants that displaced these earlier populations might not have come directly from Africa but from the area that is now North Korea and Manchuria, where the Eurasiatic languages may have originated as many as 35,000 years ago. With the help of technologies such as skin rafts, Eurasiatic speakers migrated across the northern latitudes all the way from northern Canada to Ireland. These migrants included Indo-European, a sub-group that eventually generated yet more waves global migration that often displaced the speakers of Eurasiatic and Indo-European languages who had arrived earlier.

The causes and organization of those early movements is also unclear. Contemporary hunter-gatherers live itinerant lifestyles, but are largely confined to specific and relatively familiar territories, in part because of the pressures of the settled states around them. In conditions of relatively unpopulated frontiers, what would lead humans to spread out to new lands and learn the new technologies necessary for survival in those lands? Did entire communities move in search of food, space, or a spiritually benevolent environment? Or did isolated individuals or break-off groups leave their home community and eventually create new communities on their own or through bonding with other such individuals? If so, were such individuals compelled to leave their homes, or were they the young adults in search of wealth and adventure that have predominated among migrants during periods of written history? Did they, as is the case with many more recent migrants, originally intend to return to their home communities only to find this goal impossible to achieve? Did these new communities grow through the help of migration from other communities through marriage, capture, and voluntary movement? And, when peoples moved into places that were already inhabited, as must be assumed under models of multiple waves of migration, did they displace, live next to, merge with, or become subsumed into the preexisting communities? Presumably, specific mixes of all these possibilities happened at different times and places.

Domestication, States, and Migration

The domestication of plants and animals over the past 13,000 years has changed the patterns of human mobility. The change was not sudden: itinerant hunter gatherer groups still exist to this day, and many peoples have mixed residence in agricultural villages with foraging and hunting excursions that could last anywhere from days to months. But by 3000 BCE new regimes of human mobility had clearly emerged. Animal husbandry and agriculture were each associated with their own forms of movement. Animal domestication was associated with pastoral nomadism in many parts of the world, in which small groups followed and led flocks to grazing grounds along seasonal circuits. Agriculture, on the other hand, increasingly tied people to single locales. But it also facilitated the rise of large states, and new forms of mobility through military action, colonization, trade, and labor migration.

The spread of these technologies was often associated with the expansion of linguistic groups, even if not necessarily with all of the speakers of those languages. The spread of Indo-European languages during the three millennia after 3000 BCE from their homeland north of the Black Sea across a region spanning from Ireland to northern India was often linked to horse domestication, and possibly to the chariot. Bantu languages started in what is now Nigeria and spread to the southern and eastern parts of Africa from 3000 BCE to 500 CE, often in association with new agricultural technologies. Austronesian languages began their spread from southeastern China through much of maritime Southeast Asia in 3000 BCE along with technologies such as rice agriculture, the stilt house, and pottery. By the time these migrations reached their farthest destinations in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Madagascar less than a thousand years ago, however, many of these technologies had been lost, with the notable exception of their formidable maritime skills based in the outrigger canoe. In all of these cases except the Polynesian islands, it remains uncertain to what extent the mobility was one of expansion into relatively unsettled areas, the conquest and replacement of previous populations, or of some mix of peoples, technologies, and languages moving across existing communities.

These technologies also facilitated the rise of military formations. The effects of the military on mobility could take many forms: the recruitment of soldiers, prisoners, and laborers for army service and public works; the movement and resettlement of administrators, craftsmen, and occupying armies to conquered lands; the establishment of military colonies and frontier garrisons; the creation of refugees; the forcible transfer of villages and populations; and the transport of prisoners to provide public spectacle in important population centers. Some of the more well-known migrations of the past 2,000 years are associated with military conquest and colonization. These include the spread of the Greeks as far as Afghanistan behind the conquests of Alexander in the fourth century BCE; the Arab expansion of the seventh and eighth centuries that brought Islam in its wake from Spain to the borders of China; the Viking conquests in Europe from the ninth to eleventh centuries, and the Mongol conquests of much of Asia in the thirteenth century. Although in all of these cases (except perhaps the Mongols) the conquerors left an enormous cultural and linguistic legacy, but were not necessarily the majority of migrants themselves. The bulk of the people who moved may actually have been soldiers, craftsmen, traders, and refugees of other ethnicities who were compelled to move or who took advantage of opportunities in the newly expanded political spaces. The historical record often overlooks these migrations of the conquered and conscripted , although the Jewish exiles to Egypt and to Babylon, and their later global Diaspora from these destinations and from their homeland, are perhaps the most well-known of all migrations.

The rise of states, empires, and nomadic peoples also facilitated the rise of mobility for the sake of long-distance trade. Powerful states were able to regulate the trade routes, create an elite with a demand for luxury goods, and mobilize resources necessary for long trading expeditions. The skills and knowledge of nomadic peoples in Central Asia, Arabia, and the Sahara in navigating the vast expanses were a crucial part of these trade routes. Long-distance trade also led to the creation of trade diasporas, peoples linked through bonds of family, ethnicity, and common commercial interest who managed the purchasing, financing, transportation, and retailing of goods across these distances. The spread of major world religions and exchange of artistic forms also followed these routes. At the same time, growing commerce and trade encouraged short-distance migration, especially to growing cities, periodic markets, and for seasonal agricultural labor. The transportation routes themselves became a major cause of migration, requiring the labor of numerous porters, animal drivers, guides, guards, and sailors. For more skilled professions, sometimes entire villages or itinerant castes and groups would specialize in the training of certain crafts such as stonework, acting, or construction, and travel the circuits from markets to manors to practice their crafts.

States could also fear unregulated mobility. The gradual suppression of nomadic peoples from 1500 until the twenty-first century is one example of this. But states also tried to manage the mobility of settled people within their borders. This rarely happened in the form of immigration laws and border control as we know now. Rather, states were more concerned to control domestic mobility and stop exit, thinking that a large population tied to the farms and fixed sites of craft production, and easily located for the sake of military service, was a source of wealth and power. In practical terms, individual towns and villages actually devised and enforced these regulations more than states. The local communities knew who was and was not an outsider, and could more effectively administer discriminatory taxes, residence permits, vagrancy and poor laws, quarantines, naturalization procedures and other regulations designed to differentiate subjects from aliens, and the different kinds of rights that were distributed to different groups.

These processes of power and mobility converged in the rise of slavery into one of the major forms of human mobility until the late nineteenth century. The rise of military formations that could be used for raids and capture, the wealth of agricultural states, the formation of settled agricultural families, and the rise of property laws and long-distance markets all facilitated the rise of slavery around the world as a means of both coercing and financing human mobility. The forms of slavery varied enormously, from de facto adoption into families to brutal labor exploitation on plantations and mines. But the relationship of slavery, markets, military, and states was a firm one.

All of these forms of mobility converged into one of the greatest migrations of human history, the conquest and repopulation of the Americas, which also provide a convenient illustration of the varied effects of migration. The movement of over 10 million African slaves from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries was the greatest human relocation to date. The genetic impact of these migrants on the American population is undeniable, yet their linguistic and cultural impact is scattered and diffuse. The cultural and linguistic impact of the 3 million Europeans who arrived in the Americas before the 1820s is much more pronounced. But this, too, was subject to variations. In much of what is now Latin America, European genes are mixed with indigenous American and African through mestizaje. And, while European language and culture clearly dominates, African and indigenous American influences are prominent in many regions. Total migration before 1820 to North America and the southern cone of Argentina was much less than to other parts of the Americas. Yet the destruction of the native population was much more complete and the great majority of culture, language, and genes have come from Europe. This, of course, was largely an effect of the new waves of mass migration that began in the nineteenth century, a subject addressed in the following section.

Mass Migration from 1840 to 1940

Global migration boomed after the 1840s. This is especially true of long-distance migration facilitated by the growth in trains, steamships, airplanes, and other inexpensive and rapid transportation technologies. But shorter distance migration also grew, in conjunction with unparalleled urbanization and commercialization. These developments were inseparable from industrialization, the expansion of global markets and the concurrent massification of production, mobility, and consumption. People were drawn to jobs in factories, plantations, mines, and cities, and to distant frontiers where they provided food and resources to supply the growing industrial centers. The fields of Siberia and North America, the mines of South Africa and Manchuria, the rice paddies of Thailand and Hawaii, the rubber plantations of Malaysia and the Amazon, the factories of Chicago and Manchester, the canals of Panama and Suez, the entrepots of Singapore and Shanghai, the service jobs of New York and Bombay, and the oil fields of Qatar and Venezuela have all drawn migrants as key nodes in an expanding global economy.

Much of this mobility was the continuation and expansion of practices that had been going on for centuries: travel for trade and business, the colonization of agricultural lands, the movement of soldiers and sailors, and the constant ebb and flow of forced and free labor to plantations, mines, factories, and domestic service both far and near. But the explosion in quantity was also a transformation in quality. These migrations were increasingly free, less linked to the military, and dominated by labor migrants looking for work. Many migrants also intended to make temporary journeys to earn money and resources that could be used to support their families back home, although these intentions often changed with time. Over the course of the twentieth century, migrations were also increasingly shaped by management and purification of national populations in the form of border controls and refugee movements.

After the 1840s, it becomes easier to specify the directions and quantities of migration. Long-distance movement increased more rapidly than world population from the 1840s to 1930, with only brief fluctuations due to the depressions from the 1870s to 1890s and World War I (1914–1918). It averaged 3.2 million migrants a year from 1906 to 1914, with transatlantic migration reaching a spectacular peak of over 2.1 million in 1913. After World War I, migration hit new peaks of 3.3 million a year in the late 1920s, with migration to Southeast Asia peaking at 1.25 million in 1927, and migration to northern Asia peaking at 1.5 million in 1929. The Great Depression put a stop to much migration, with the significant exception of the command economies of Japan and the Soviet Union, where coercion, government promotion, and relatively strong economies produced rates of up to 1.8 million migrants a year into northern Asia in the late 1930s. Long-distance migration did not again regain these per annum rates in comparison to world population until the 1990s.

Migrants who traveled by ship before World War II were counted at ports and in ships’ logs, thus providing excellent data for estimates of transoceanic migration. Government frontier settlement programs such as the movement of Russians to Siberia, have also left behind some excellent data. Such estimates usually obscure return and repeat voyages. But they nonetheless allow for reasonable estimates of major long-distance and trans-oceanic migration flows.

At least 170 million long-distance (transoceanic and trans-Siberian) voyages took place from 1840 to 1940. These migrations can be divided in to three main systems: 1) 55–58 million migrants from Europe and the Middle East to the Americas; 2) 48–52 million Indians and South Chinese to Southeast Asia and areas bordering the Indian Ocean; and 3) 46–51 million North Chinese, Russians, Koreans and Japanese into central and northern Asia, especially to Manchuria and the southern portions of Siberia. The majority of long-distance migration from 1840 to 1940 can be divided into three main systems. In addition, about 2.5 million East Asians and Indians moved to the Americas, about 8 million Europeans moved to Africa, Asia, and Australia.

Over 65 percent of the transatlantic migrants went to the United States, with the bulk of the remainder divided between Canada, Argentina (which had the largest proportion of foreign-born residents), Brazil, and, to a lesser extent, Cuba. Over half of the emigration before the 1870s was from the British Isles, with much of the remainder from northwest Europe. After the 1880s, regions of intensive emigration spread south and east as far as Portugal, Russia, and Syria. Up to 2.5 million migrants from Southeast Asia also traveled to the Americas, mostly to the frontiers of western North America or the plantations of the Caribbean, Peru, and Brazil. Half of this migration took place before 1885, after which the decline of indentured labor recruitment and the rise of anti-Asian immigration laws began to take effect.

Migration to Southeast Asia and lands around the Indian Ocean and South Pacific consisted of over 29 million Indians and over 19 million Chinese, with much smaller numbers of Japanese, Europeans, and western Asians. Most migration from India was to colonies throughout the British Empire. Less than 10 percent of this migration was indentured, although much of it was undertaken with assistance from colonial authorities, or under some form of debt obligation under kangani labor recruitment systems. Over 2 million Indians also migrated as merchants or other travelers not intending to work as laborers. Migration expanded with the increasing restriction of indenture contracts in India after 1908 and the abolishment of indenture in 1920. Nearly 4 million Indians traveled to Malaysia, over 8 million to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), over 15 million to Burma (now Myanmar), and about a million to Africa, other parts of Southeast Asia, and islands throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans.

The vast majority of Chinese migrants came from the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. Fewer than three-quarters of a million of them signed indenture contracts with European employers, including a quarter million to Latin America and the Caribbean before 1874, a quarter million to Sumatra from the 1880s to the 1910s, and a smaller number to mines, plantations, and islands scattered throughout the Pacific and Indian oceans. Many more Chinese worked for Chinese employers under various forms of contract and debt obligation, wage labor, and profit sharing. Up to 11 million Chinese traveled from China to the Straits Settlements, although more than a third of these transshipped to the Dutch Indies, Borneo, Burma, and places farther west. Nearly 4 million traveled directly from China to Thailand, between 2 and 3 million to French Indochina, over a million to the Dutch Indies (for a total of over 4 million if transshipments from Singapore are included), fewer than a million to the Philippines, and over half a million to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and other islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

In the north of Asia, the Qing dynasty (1644– 1911/12) government’s gradual relaxation of restrictions against movement into Manchuria after 1860 and the emancipation of serfs in Russia in 1861 set the stage for more massive migration. Both governments actively encouraged settlement with homesteading policies in the 1880s, each partly inspired by the desire to forestall territorial encroachment by the other. Railroad construction in the 1890s further strengthened the migrant flows. Between 28 million and 33 million Chinese migrated into Manchuria and eastern Siberia, along with nearly 2 million Koreans, and more than a half million Japanese. Another two and a half million Koreans migrated to Japan, especially in the 1930s. At least 13 million Russians moved into Central Asia and Siberia over this period. In addition, up to a million northern Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese migrated to a diverse range of destinations, including much of the Americas, Hawaii, Southeast Asia, South Africa, and Europe.

These long-distance movements created a significant shift in the distribution of the world’s population. All three major destination regions experienced massive population growth, with their populations increasing by factors of 4 to 5.5 from 1850 to 1950. These rates were over twice that for world population as a whole. Growth rates in the sending regions were lower than world population growth, and less than half the rates in the receiving regions. Taken together, the three main destination regions accounted for 10 percent of the world’s population in 1850 and 24 percent in 1950.

Emigration rates were uneven within particular regions, with some villages or counties sending numerous migrants while others send hardly any at all. Nonetheless, average emigration rates in all of these systems are broadly comparable. At first glance 19 million overseas emigrants from China or 29 million from India seems negligible compared to the several millions from much smaller countries like Italy, Norway, Ireland, and England. But if we look at regions of comparable size, the rates are very similar. Some of the peak recorded emigration rates ever were an annual average of 22 emigrants per 1,000 population in Ireland during the famine of 1845 to 1855, or 18 per 1,000 from Iceland in the 1880s. Some South Pacific and Caribbean islands probably experienced similar rates. More typical rates in periods of high overseas emigration are 10.8 per 1,000 from Italy, 8.3 per 1,000 from Norway, and 7 per 1,000 from Ireland in the first decade of the twentieth century. In comparison, the annual average overseas emigration rate from Guangdong Province in the south of China, which had an area slightly larger and population slightly smaller than Italy, was at least 9.6 per 1,000 in the peak years of the 1920s. Hebei and Shandong provinces (sources of migration to Manchuria) had a rate of 10 per 1,000 during that same decade.

These three systems were still only the tip of the iceberg. Many migrants also moved through Africa and western Asia, and within the main sending and receiving regions. The majority of global migration was probably to nearby cities, towns, and agricultural areas, often on a temporary basis. This migration is more difficult to count, but general patterns can be identified.

Africa experienced net immigration, but in much smaller numbers than other main destinations and from a wider variety of origins. The immigrants included over 3 million French and Italians into North Africa and up to a million other Europeans, Syrians, Lebanese, Arabs, Indians, and Chinese throughout the continent. The end of the transatlantic slave trade led to increased movement of slaves into the western Sudan, Middle East, and areas bordering the Indian Ocean in the late nineteenth century. Labor migration to plantations and mines in southern and central Africa increased through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as did movement to agricultural areas and coastal cities in western and eastern Africa. Millions of people took part in these movements, some of whom were coerced and many of whom went to work for European enterprises, but many of whom also found independent occupations. Projects such as the Suez Canal and development of an infrastructure for cotton cultivation in Egypt attracted large amounts of local migration, while Lebanon and Syria experienced some of the highest overseas emigration rates in the world. In a different type of migration, over 3 million people took part in the pilgrimage to Mecca from 1879 to 1938.

Western Asia and Eastern Europe were areas of massive migration caused by violence and politics, a harbinger of the kinds of migration that would become increasingly prominent over the twentieth century. The dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and wars with Russia led to an exchange of 4 to 6 million people, with Muslims moving south from the Balkans, Greece, and Russia into Turkey, and Christians moving in the other direction. Around a million Armenians were expelled from Turkey to points around the world, and nearly 400,000 Jews moved to Palestine in the early twentieth century. The massive movement of refugees would extend to other parts of Europe in the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, including the movement of 3 million Russians, Poles, and Germans out of the Soviet Union.

Migration also took place within the receiving regions of the long-distance systems. The transatlantic migrations could be extended to include the 13 million people who moved to the western frontiers of North America. This process also spurred the relocation of great numbers of Native Americans, and the migration of over 2.5 million Mexicans to the agricultural areas of the southwestern United States in the early twentieth century. The industrial centers of the northeastern United States also attracted over 2.5 million Canadians, and then over a million African Americans and Mexicans in the early twentieth century. In other parts of the Americas, great numbers of Andean peoples moved to coastal plantations and cities, and over 300,000 Caribbean people migrated to plantations in Central America and Cuba, to the Panama Canal Zone, and the United States. In Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, up to 500,000 Javanese traveled to plantations in Sumatra and the Southeast Asian mainland, and over 400,000 Melanesians and Micronesians worked on plantations and as seamen throughout the region.

In Europe, migrants from Ireland traveled to England for work, and those from eastern and southern Europe to industrial areas in northern Europe, especially France and Germany. In Russia, migrants moved into the growing cities and southern agricultural areas. Within India they moved to tea plantations in the south and northeast, to the mines and textile-producing regions of Bengal, and to newly irrigated lands and urban areas throughout the subcontinent. In China, they migrated to growing coastal cities, to areas of the Yangzi (Chang) River basin left underpopulated by the devastating casualties of the Taiping Rebellion, and to borderland areas of the northwest and southwest, including overland migration to Burma.

These massive flows led to a backlash in the form of stricter migration laws. The middle of the nineteenth century was an unparalleled era of free movement. By the 1860s, most exit controls and the local laws regulating domestic movement had been dismantled. By the 1880s, however, new regulations in the form of medical inspections and laws to keep Asian migrants out of white settler nations were in force. By the 1920s, these laws had expanded into quotas, multiple categories for admissible and nonadmissible migrants, and even a resurgence of exit controls, especially by Communist nations. Many people began to assume that a nation could not be sovereign and independent without control of its borders against immigration. The same forces and technologies that led to the boom in global mobility also made it possible to increasingly control that mobility and to make somebody “illegal” merely by virtue of moving without documents.

Migration Since World War II

International migration remained relatively low in the decades immediately following World War II, with the exception of massive refugee flows in Europe and south Asia that resulted from the new European political map after World War II, the creation of Israel, and the partition of India. Refugees have remained an important source of migration to this day, especially in Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Rural-to-urban migration also grew increasingly important in Asian, African, and Latin American countries over the second half of the twentieth century. International migration to industrialized countries expanded steadily after the 1960s, due to immigration laws that provided for guest workers, family reunification, and migration from ex-colonies. Major flows have included migrants from western and southern Asia and northern Africa to Europe, from Latin America and east Asia to North America, and from Asia to Australia. Migration to expanding economies in Japan, Southeast Asia, Argentina, South Africa, and especially to the oil-rich areas of the Middle East has also grown since the 1970s.

Due to the great diversity of administrative categories used to count migrants, it is more difficult to estimate global migration since World War II than for the previous century. A crude estimate of annual migration flows in the 1990s could start with yearly figures of 1.2 million legal migrants to the European Union and 400 to 500,000 irregular migrants. Migration to the United States averaged 860,000 legal migrants a year and perhaps another 300,000 illegals (still less than the highest numbers of 1912–1913). Migration into Canada, Australia, and New Zealand accounted for another 300,000 each. Over a million migrants traveled each year to the Persian Gulf states and Israel. Over half a million asylum applications were also made each year around the world, often not counted in migration statistics. Other major destinations include Argentina, Venezuela, South Africa, and Japan, and large flows moved between countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the ex-Soviet republics. A generous estimate of 2 to 3 million migrants a year for these other destinations would constitute an annual migration of 6.5 to 7.5 million a year. A hypothetical return rate of 40 to 45 percent could account for the increase of 40 million migrants found in migrant stock estimates from 1990 to 2000. Most evidence points to migration rates remaining steady in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

A comparison of this number with the peak migrations of the early twentieth century shows absolute numbers that are up to three times higher than earlier migrations, but are quite similar as a proportion of world population. A total of 80 million migrants in the 1990s would account for 1.5 percent of world population, while the 32 million migrants from 1906 to 1915 accounted for 1.8 percent of world population. It seems likely that the impact of long-distance migration in these two periods is quite comparable. But this may not be the best measurement of global mobility. Some 700 million tourist entries were counted in 2000, up from 480 million in 1990 and 300 million in 1980, a growth that is several magnitudes of order larger than in the previous migration wave. While this movement may not generate significant shifts in the global population, it has had an enormous effect on the global economic, social, and cultural order.

Given the difficulty in counting mobility, most international organizations now prefer to count “migrant stock” in national censuses as a way to quantify the effects of migration. (See table 2.) This, too, is a very imperfect form of measurement, because some censuses count foreign birth, while others count only foreign residents who have not become citizens, and others merely note racial or ethnic distinctions. This system may also count people who have never moved all their lives, while international borders have moved around them. For example, the 20 million refugees created by the partition of India and Pakistan accounted for nearly 15 to 25 percent of the world “migrant stock” through the 1970s, even though south Asia is more important as a migrant producing than receiving region. Similarly, the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s led to a dramatic increase in the proportion of migrant stock in that area, as many people living in the newly created nations chose to retain the citizenship of Russia or neighboring nations.

About 20 percent of this migrant stock can be counted in the United States, and another 22 percent in western Europe. About 7 percent of all migrants are found in Canada, Australia, and Japan. Altogether, half of all international migrants are to be found in the developed countries, marking a shift away from earlier trends of migration toward frontier areas. Of the rest, about 12 percent are found in Eastern Europe, 7 percent in the Persian Gulf states, and the other 32 percent distributed among the other nations of the world. Although the United States ranks number 1 in total immigrants counted, only 12.8 percent of the population is migrants, placing it far behind small countries like Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, in which 60–80 percent of the population are immigrants.

Other trends over the second half of the twentieth century include the rise of women and professional migrants. In the first wave of mass migration, men were the majority of migrants, with the exception of some flows like the Irish and the Jews. In the 1920s and especially the 1930s, women made up an increasing proportion. Now, about half of international migrants to most destinations are women. Similarly, migrants are no longer made up mostly of laborers and ex-peasants. Professionals have made up more than 20 percent of migrants into North America and Europe since the 1960s, and are a significant proportion of migrants into the oil kingdoms. Several immigrant groups in the United States, from Indians and Filipinos to Argentines and Nigerians have higher educational levels and family incomes than the native-born white population. Immigration law preferences for the wealthy and educated play an important role in this stream, as does the lack of intellectually and financially attractive jobs in many poorer countries. Over time, however, migrant flows once dominated by educated professionals open the door for a rise in less-skilled migrants taking advantage of family reunification opportunities, and the proportions turn toward less-skilled migrants.

The expansion of migration laws and their continual proliferation of categories, have also shaped the quantities and directions of migration. In the twenty-first century it is almost impossible to talk of migration without simultaneously talking about status as tourists, immigrants, permanent residents, business travelers, holiday workers, guest workers, family reunification, investors, students, illegals, and the undocumented. The control of mobility is the most intensive space of systematic discrimination in the world today, where the accidents of birth and wealth determine who is free to move and who is a criminal by virtue of moving. In a world increasingly characterized by mobility, that mobility is impossible to understand apart from the controls and definitions imposed by states.


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Photo showing President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on Sept. 4. (Noel Celis/AFP via Getty Images)

How Global Public Opinion of China Has Shifted in the Xi Era

The Chinese Communist Party is preparing for its 20th National Congress, an event likely to result in an unprecedented third term for President Xi Jinping. Since Xi took office in 2013, opinion of China in the U.S. and other advanced economies has turned precipitously more negative. How did it get to be this way?

In the U.S., views of China experienced minor fluctuations in the years preceding Xi’s presidency. Throughout this period, around four-in-ten or more had positive views of China and only a minority had negative views of the country. Still, views ebbed and flowed somewhat alongside domestic and international events.

Negative views of China were slightly more elevated when Xi took office and during President Barack Obama’s second term. Alongside frictions in the bilateral relationship , such as China’s efforts at land reclamation in the South China Sea and America’s negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, American views of China turned somewhat more negative, with around half or more saying they had an unfavorable view of the superpower.

As President Donald Trump took office, views of China improved somewhat. Early in Trump’s tenure, he heaped praise on Xi, inviting him to his residence at Mar-a-Lago and discussing their personal chemistry . Republican views of China, in particular, turned significantly less negative during these two years and in 2018, there were no partisan differences in views of China for the first time since 2008 – a year that was characterized by a new administration.

Views of China soured as the trade war took hold – particularly among Republicans. The trade war – which began in July 2018 and resulted in numerous tit-for-tat tariffs between the U.S. and China – was accompanied by increasingly unfavorable views of China. Between 2018 and 2019, negative views among Republicans increased nearly 20 percentage points.

Unfavorable views of China continued to increase as COVID-19 spread globally. By March 2020, around three-quarters of Americans had unfavorable opinions of China – a view which was particularly high among those who thought China was doing a bad job handling COVID-19.

A large majority of Americans see China unfavorably amid concerns about China’s policies on human rights, its partnership with Russia and other factors. Views of China continue to be broadly negative as Americans view multiple issues in the bilateral relationship as very serious problems for the U.S. (In 2020, Pew Research Center switched the mode by which it asks views of China.)


Multiple factors have affected views of China over time. In the U.S., the sense that China has handled COVID-19 poorly and is at fault for the virus’s spread certainly is related to negative opinions of the superpower, but is not the only factor driving attitudes. Rather, negative views of China were already rising prior to the pandemic. The same is true in other countries, including some of China’s neighbors, like South Korea, Japan and Australia.

Unfavorable views of China in South Korea have increased dramatically since 2017. South Korea was heavily affected by Chinese economic retribution following the country’s 2017 decision to install an American missile interceptor (THAAD) . Negative views of China went up substantially in 2017 alongside this turmoil; they increased again in 2020 when, in the wake of COVID-19, unfavorable opinion went up in nearly every country Pew Research Center surveyed . But views have continued to sour, and today unfavorable views of China are at a historic high of 80%.

Japanese views of China have been broadly negative for the past decade. Negative views of China skyrocketed in the early 2000s amid myriad bilateral tensions , and for the past 20 years, Japanese views of China have always been among the most negative in Center surveys, if not  the  most negative. Negative views peaked at 93% in 2013, following  extreme tension in the East China Sea . Very unfavorable views of China have also been particularly elevated since 2020, with around half of Japanese adults saying this describes their views of China.

While COVID-19 and resulting trade frictions led to the most negative views of China on record in Australia, unfavorable views had been ticking up since 2017. In that year , the Australian Security Intelligence Organization issued warnings about Chinese attempts to influence Australian domestic politics, resulting in new Australian laws to curb foreign interference and strong responses from China. And while views went from broadly favorable to unfavorable between 2017 and 2019, the largest year-on-year increase in negative views took place between 2019 and 2020 ; at the time, negative views went up 24 percentage points as trade tensions spiraled following Australia’s calls to investigate the COVID-19 virus’s origins .

% in each country with a(n) __ view of China

Note: In spring 2021 and summer 2020, the Center ran concurrent phone (solid lines in chart) and online panel (dashed lines in chart) surveys in Australia. In spring 2019 and prior to 2019, Australia surveys were conducted over the phone. Source: Spring 2022 Global Attitudes Survey. Q5b.


The same pattern holds true in Canada and Sweden : Although negative views of China went up in both countries between 2019 and 2020, unfavorable views had already grown markedly in both countries amid bilateral tensions. Beyond these specific countries, unfavorable views are at or near their historic highs in many of the advanced economies we have surveyed since 2020. And, even in some emerging economies – which we have been unable to survey since 2019 due to the challenges of conducting face-to-face surveys during the pandemic – negative views of China were already commonplace three years ago. This is the case in countries like the Philippines, India and Turkey. Still, around half or more had favorable views of China in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa when those countries were last surveyed in 2019. Views of China are also relatively more positive in Singapore, Malaysia and Israel – three countries where surveys were possible in 2022. For detailed tables on views of China, see the Appendix .  

Pew Research Center has been researching views of China since 2002 and has collected data from more than 60 countries on the topic. While this report endeavors to include relevant data from both emerging and advanced economies, as appropriate, unfortunately we have not been able to survey in most emerging economies since 2019, due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Because this report stresses many of the recent shifts we have seen in views of China, we focus more on the data from the advanced economies that we were able to collect between 2020 and 2022. Opinion of China in emerging economies may differ somewhat and we hope to be able to resume our work measuring views of China in a broader group of countries next year. This report also does not include data from China. We have been unable to do polling in China since the introduction of the Foreign NGO Law in 2017. We also include data from an open-ended question asked in both Australia and the U.S. on what people think about when they think about China. Responses are presented in respondents’ own words and have only been edited lightly for clarity. As a result, some phrases found throughout this data essay – and particularly those in the section discussing perceptions of Chinese people – may contain offensive content.

Note: In spring 2020, the Center ran concurrent phone (solid lines in chart) and online panel (dashed lines in chart) surveys in the U.S. In summer 2020 and prior to 2020, U.S. surveys were conducted over the phone. Source: Spring 2022 Global Attitudes Survey. Q5b.

Views of President Xi Jinping

President Xi Jinping – who is likely to be appointed to an unprecedented third term at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party – is also seen quite negatively. He has been in power in China for the past decade, one marked by global feats like building an international space station , hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics and pouring billions of dollars into international infrastructure through the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative . But his tenure has also involved controversial island construction and militarization in the South China Sea, widespread protests in Hong Kong and human rights abuses against Uyghurs , as well as a centralization of power and elevation of himself not seen since Chairman Mao Zedong .

Bar chart showing little confidence in President Xi across Europe and North America

Much like opinion of China, views of Xi – which were already quite negative in 2014, just about a year after he took office – have become increasingly negative in recent years. In the spring of 2014, people in most places surveyed felt more negatively than positively about the new president. The primary exceptions were in emerging and developing economies in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. Take Uganda as an example: There, 41% were confident in Xi to do the right thing regarding world affairs, and 23% said they were not confident. Notably, 36% of Ugandans said they did not know or otherwise did not answer the question, as did roughly a third or more in 16 of the 43 countries surveyed that year. As Xi’s tenure has continued, the share who did not provide a response has decreased across some survey countries.

Views of the Chinese president turned even more negative between 2019 and 2020. By 2022, majorities in all but two advanced economies surveyed had little to no confidence in his approach to world affairs. Around four-in-ten or more in most places surveyed even say they have no confidence at all in Xi, including more than half of those in Australia, France and Sweden.

In both the U.S. and Australia, when respondents were asked an open-ended question on what they think about when they think about China, some specifically highlighted China’s leadership or Xi in particular. For example, one Australian man said, “Their leader seems to be on a path to try to control too much of the world.”

How Australians and Americans speak about President Xi in their own words

“China is an autocratic dictatorship led by a tyrant, Xi Jinping; the Chinese Communist Party is an amoral kleptocracy interested merely in its own survival and not at all concerned with the welfare of its citizens. The Chinese government is a bad faith actor in world affairs increasingly resorting to economic and military threats to deal with the rest of the world.” – Man, U.S.

“A rising power that will become problematic when it cannot maintain growth. Xi’s style of ambitious authoritarianism is deeply worrying.” – Man, U.S.

“Totalitarian state, spying on citizens 24/7 … President Xi’s aim is to be the ruler of the entire world and won’t stop until he is. No regard at all for what any non-Chinese person thinks about being ruled by him, as he has no regard for the people he currently rules over.” – Man, Australia

“The people are basically good, but leader Xi is too controlling and should not be in power this long.  They need to let Hong Kong be an independent state as they promised and stop persecuting the Uyghurs.” – Woman, U.S.

“Communist pigs. Not referring to ordinary people, they are the same as you and I. But their government is nasty including their president Xi Jinping.” – Woman, Australia

More broadly, this data from the U.S. and Australia suggests that people are generally referring to the country’s leadership or government and their actions, or its economy – not the people – when thinking about China. Views of China’s government are not automatically conflated with views of China’s people. Still, following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, discrimination against people of Chinese descent has intensified in the U.S. and across the world, raising concerns about the link between negative views of China and discrimination and harassment against people of Chinese descent. In the following essay, we will explore global opinion toward China through the lens of five topics: China’s power and influence, its human rights policies, the country’s economy, COVID-19 and the Chinese people.

China’s influence, global threat and military

Photo showing members of the People's Liberation Army head to the closing of the 19th Communist Party Congress at Beijing's Great Hall of the People in 2017. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

The sense that China’s power and influence on the world stage is growing is both widespread and long-held. As of this year, a median of 66% across 19 countries say that China’s influence in the world has recently been getting stronger, including seven-in-ten or more in Australia, Italy, Israel, Greece and the Netherlands. Few – a median of 12% – say China’s influence has gotten weaker. In 2018, similarly large shares said that China was playing a more important role in the world than it had 10 years prior. And the share describing China’s influence as growing was many more than said the same of Russia, India, the U.S. and Germany, among others.  

In fact, when asked to directly compare China’s power on the world stage with the United States’ in 2015, roughly half or more in 24 of the 40 countries surveyed said that China was on track to replace the U.S. as the top global superpower or already had. This sense was particularly acute among some of China’s neighbors – like Australia and South Korea – as well as across most Western European countries surveyed.

How Australians and Americans speak about China’s power, influence and military in their own words

“I see a similarity between China and pre-WWII Germany. It’s very scary that they have become such a powerhouse and wield so much influence and are able to get away with so much.” – Woman, Australia

“Western politicians underestimated China and its desire for world dominance (political, economic and military), destroyed their own economies and capacity to manufacture, allowed individual greed and corruption to overtake national interests and now it is too late to stop it and rebuild capacity of the western world to be self-reliant. If China decides to invade Australia, or any other country, no one could stop it.” – Man, Australia

“A rapidly developing world leader. Aggressively pursuing technological dominance and we need to work with other countries to negotiate the rise of China’s influence.” – Woman, U.S.

“Beware. They want to dominate the entire world and control every aspect of our lives. God help us all, especially the people who already live under their rule.” – Woman, U.S.

“It is an emerging global superpower gaining significant influence in third-world countries. This is why it is so important that the U.S. deals with foreign policy, works with allies and exert influence in world organizations.” – Man, U.S.

China as a perceived threat

Alongside its growing influence is a sense that China is a growing threat . Roughly half or more in South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and the U.S. said China’s power and influence was a major threat to their country in 2018. But even outside these particular countries, around half or more in every country but Tunisia said China’s power and influence posed either a major or minor threat.

In the U.S., where the question about China’s power and influence as a threat was asked more recently (2022), the sense that China is a major threat increased another 19 percentage points to 67%. Similarly, the share of Americans who said limiting China’s power and influence should be a top priority grew from 32% in 2018 to 48% in 2021 (+16 points). This also made it one of the top priorities cited by Americans among 20 foreign policy goals tested. More Americans also said it was important to limit China’s power and influence than to limit the power of Russia, North Korea or Iran.

As early as 2018, the countries that stood out for seeing China as the greatest threat were the U.S., Australia, Japan and South Korea. In 2022, these countries were also among the most likely to express concerns about China’s influence in one other way: its interference in their domestic politics. In South Korea and Australia, more than half say China’s involvement in their domestic politics is a very serious problem and nearly half say the same in the U.S. In contrast, in Europe, Israel and elsewhere, around a third or fewer say China’s involvement in their own country’s politics is a very serious concern.

China’s military

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, is the largest in the world with roughly 2.8 million members. Since he took office in 2013, Xi has made several significant military moves: He built the world’s largest navy , cultivated nuclear second-strike capability and restructured the chain of command to lead directly to himself as chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Bar chart showing more than half in all countries surveyed say China’s military power is a problem

Xi also oversaw the construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea , which prompted territorial disputes with multiple neighboring countries. In 2014, when the Center first asked about the possibility of territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries leading to military conflict, there was already a great deal of concern across the Asia-Pacific region. More than eight-in-ten in the Philippines, Vietnam, Japan and South Korea said they were very or somewhat concerned about military conflict with China, as were smaller majorities in India, Malaysia and Bangladesh. Still, opinions varied somewhat about how to handle such disputes in the region. In 2015, majorities in South Korea and Vietnam favored a focus on territorial disputes over economic ties with China; a large majority in Malaysia chose the opposite. Adults in the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia and India were more split.

More broadly, there remain widespread concerns about China’s military. As of 2022, a median of 72% across 19 countries surveyed describe China’s military power as a serious problem, including 37% that call it a very serious problem for their country. Concerns are highest in Japan and Australia, where roughly six-in-ten say China’s military is a very serious problem. Singapore, Greece and Israel stand out as places with the least concern about China’s military.

Human rights

Photo showing a Hong Kong supporter holds a banned flag saying "Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now" during protests in Piccadilly Circus in London in March 2021. (May James/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Particularly in advanced economies, China has long been seen to have a problematic human rights record. In the U.S., Canada, Australia, South Korea, Japan and every European country surveyed, a majority has consistently said that the Chinese government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people since the question was first asked in 2008. Across Latin America and Africa – regions that the Center has not been able to survey in recent years – opinion was more mixed when they were last asked in 2018. In Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, half or more said China was not respecting the personal freedoms of its people, while in South Africa, Kenya, Tunisia and Nigeria, only around a third or fewer agree. Still, across both advanced and emerging economies and in both 2018 and 2021 , the sense that China does not respect the personal freedoms of its people was closely related to unfavorable views of China.

Although the sense that China did not respect the personal freedoms of its people was already high in most advanced economies in 2018, it nonetheless rose significantly again in 2021, following revelations about detention camps for Uyghurs , the U.S. declaring the situation in Xinjiang a genocide and calls to boycott the 2022 Olympics over human rights abuses, among other issues. In more than half the countries for which trends were available, this marked the largest share in history who said China didn’t respect the civil liberties of its citizens – with a majority in every public taking this stance.

This past spring, human rights was also the issue that concerned people most – above even China’s military power, economic competition with China and China’s involvement in politics in their own country. In 10 of the 19 countries surveyed, around half or more described China’s policies on human rights as a very serious problem for their country.

Table showing China’s policies on human rights are described as a very serious problem more often than other issues

These concerns, again, are linked to views of China, overall. In 18 of 19 countries surveyed, those who say China’s human rights policies are a  very  serious problem for their country are significantly more likely than those who are less concerned to hold an unfavorable view of China.

Human rights are also salient in both Australia and the U.S. Results of an open-ended question in 2021 asking respondents what they think about when they think about China indicated that human rights in China are top of mind. People could name anything about China, from the Great Wall to current policies and everything in between, and yet around two-in-ten in both countries mentioned China’s human rights record – as many or more than said the same of any other topic.

In the case of human rights, some Australians and Americans described their view that the Chinese government mistreats its people. Around one-in-ten in each country specifically highlighted curtailed personal freedoms, whether in the form of censorship, the inability to protest or a lack of freedom of religion. For example, one American woman said China is “a country that limits its people and curtails all their freedoms in order to maintain the domination and total control of the people.”

A small share of Australians (4%) and Americans (3%) explicitly mentioned the Chinese government’s treatment of the  Uyghur people , an ethnic minority group in Xinjiang, a region in northwest China. A few respondents used specific terms like “genocide” – a term now applied  by the U.S. government and debated in Australia –  or “concentration camps” when discussing the issue. Still, in both countries, this is many more than highlighted other high-profile human rights issues like Tibet or the Falun Gong.

How Australians and Americans speak about China and human rights in their own words

“I am very concerned that the people do not have any freedom in the police state in which they live. I have grave concerns about the Uyghurs and the way they are being rounded up and put into the so-called re-education centers. It seems as if there is another holocaust happening with these people. The lack of freedoms obviously.” – Man, Australia

“China has a huge human rights problem. Their citizens are spied on and arrested for speaking out.” – Woman, U.S.

“China is an authoritarian, racist dictatorship that crushes dissent, limits freedom of expression, and persecutes racial/religious minorities. They are a communist-in-name, fascist-in-practice rogue state that needs to be kept in check. They put Muslims into concentration camps, and crushed pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.” – Man, U.S.

“Many changes in Chinese society have allowed for a fairer distribution of wealth and opportunity. Maintaining control of such a large population allows for the acceptance of violence and coercion. Individual rights and freedoms are not respected as they do not contribute to advances in Chinese society … Minorities in China are treated badly and their cultures are suppressed as shown in Tibet and the Uyghurs.” – Woman, Australia

“An advanced country that is willing to sacrifice the basic human rights of its people for its lust of power. – Woman, Australia

Australia and the U.S. are also two countries where a majority think that it’s more important to try and promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations with China. The same is true in Canada, Japan and nearly all of the European countries surveyed in 2022. But in Israel, Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea, a majority think it’s more important to prioritize strengthening economic relations with China, even if it means not addressing human rights issues.

Bar chart showing majorities in North America, Europe prioritize human rights in China over economic relations

In nearly all places surveyed, those who see China’s human rights policies as a very serious problem are more likely to favor promoting human rights regardless of economic consequences. For example, 87% of Canadians who see China’s policies as a very serious issue prioritize human rights, compared with 64% of those who show less concern. This is the case in each country surveyed except Malaysia.

In the U.S., human rights is one of the few issues related to China that is bipartisan in nature . Generally speaking, Republicans tend to have more negative views of China , to be more likely to see China as an enemy of the U.S. and to support taking a tougher approach to China than Democrats. Republicans and independents who lean toward the Republican Party are equally as likely as Democrats and Democratic leaners to support challenging China on human rights even at economic cost, to describe China’s policies on human rights as a very serious problem for the U.S. and even to mention human rights in the open-ended question asking how people think about China . Some of this may be related to media dynamics. Results of a separate analysis find that Republicans who turn only to news outlets with right-leaning audiences and Democrats who turn only to outlets with left-leaning audiences are also more likely than others in their respective parties to say the U.S. should try to promote human rights in China, even if it harms economic relations, and that China is doing a very bad job dealing with climate change. (For more on news consumption and its relationship to views of China, see “ Americans in news media ‘bubbles’ think differently about foreign policy than others .”)

Because the American surveys have recently been conducted on an online, probability panel, we are also able to look at change of opinion within individuals. Results of this analysis allow us to clearly see that changing views of China’s policies on human rights are strongly related to changing views of China. In other words, between 2020 and 2022, people who increasingly saw human rights as a serious problem for the U.S. were also more likely to have negative views of China. (For more, see “ Some Americans’ views of China turned more negative after 2020, but others became more positive .”)  

Photo showing container ships leave a deep-water wharf in Shanghai on Sept. 11. (CFOTO/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Despite a year-end slowdown , China’s pandemic recovery outpaced that of other major nations in 2021, and economic competition from China is seen as a serious problem among advanced economies. Those in South Korea, Japan, the U.S. and Australia are particularly concerned. About eight-in-ten or more in these four countries see economic competition from China as a serious problem in 2022, including about a third or more who say competition is a very serious problem. The survey was ongoing when Japan recorded a decline in exports to China and finished before South Korea registered a months-long trade deficit with China. Australia has seen a trade surplus with China since before the pandemic, but was hit with a series of sanctions from China in 2020.

Majorities in all but one European country surveyed also say economic competition with China was a serious problem, including at least a third in France, Greece, Spain and Italy who see it as a very serious problem. The European Union put out an official communication labeling China a “systemic rival” and “economic competitor” in 2019.

In the U.S., the Center has recorded additional concerns about the loss of jobs to China and their country’s trade deficit with China. More than eight-in-ten Americans considered both issues to be serious problems in 2021, including about half who said the loss of jobs to China was a very serious problem. Concern about the United States’ trade deficit with China has become slightly less intense over the past decade, with the share considering it a very serious problem declining from 61% in 2012 to 43%. The 2021 results were recorded before the end of the year, when the trade deficit with China increased for the first time since 2019.

How Australians and Americans speak about China and its economy in their own words

“Massive economic power that cares little about their workers but have brainwashed them with propaganda into thinking that they matter. It’s hard to compete economically with a nation that has a workforce that puts their job and allegiance to country above all else. Their workforce is so industrious. The workers are like robots. Everything I buy says made in China.” – Woman, U.S.

“China is the only major country in the world that has lifted the majority of its population out of poverty and progressed from a third-world status to a first-world economic status in just under 40 years!!” – Woman, Australia

“I really do not know very much about China, except that the U.S. owes them a great deal of money, and they produce less than acceptable products.” – Man, U.S.

“No respect for the intellectual property of others. Exploitation of the working class to enrich a few and to gain economic power for the few.” – Woman, U.S.

“Trade partner – we need to keep the tariffs fair to U.S. interests. Human rights abuse.” – Woman, U.S.

While those in advanced economies all saw economic competition from China as a serious problem in 2022, some have not always considered China’s economic growth to be bad for their countries. In North America, in 2019, about half said China’s growing economy was good for their respective countries, and roughly half or more in Australia, Japan and South Korea said the same . Among Europeans, roughly half or more in the UK, Greece, Germany and France also considered China’s economic growth as good for their country in 2014 .

Table showing strong economic ties with U.S. preferred over ties with China

Most among the non-European economies surveyed in 2019 also saw China’s economic growth as a positive development for their country. Majorities in three of four Middle Eastern countries, the three African countries and two of three Latin American countries surveyed all labeled China’s growing economy as a good thing for their country. They were also inclined to see investment from China as benefiting their country: Majorities welcomed Chinese investment in Nigeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Mexico, Israel, Kenya, South Africa and Brazil. All African countries and most Middle Eastern countries surveyed in 2019 have signed agreements with China regarding China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Mixed feelings about China’s growing economy are accompanied by a preference for closer economic ties with the U.S. than with China. In 2021, most among the advanced economies surveyed saw more value in having close economic ties with the U.S. The difference was greatest in Canada: 87% said close economic ties with the U.S. was preferable compared with just 7% who said the same about close ties with China. Large differences were also seen in Sweden, Japan and South Korea, where a close economic relationship with the U.S. led by 71 percentage points, 66 points and 58 points, respectively. Only Singaporeans were less likely to prefer ties with the U.S. than with China (-16 points) among all publics surveyed in 2021. The same was true among the countries last surveyed in 2019, most of which were emerging economies. In Australia, Canada, Japan and South Korea, the preference for economic ties with the U.S. has also increased substantially in recent years . In Australia, for example, people were around twice as likely to prefer close economic ties with China when asked in 2015, but by 2021, the relationship had fully reversed; now by a roughly two-to-one margin, people prefer close ties with the U.S. (59% vs. 31%, respectively).

Bar chart showing in 2020, Europeans saw China as world’s dominant economic power

However, the preference for close economic ties with the U.S. over China in 2019 and 2021 was not necessarily because of the United States’ perceived economic strength. Instead, China was seen as the world’s leading economy in 11 of the 14 countries surveyed in 2020. In seven of nine European countries surveyed, there was a double-digit difference in the share who saw China as the top economy and the share who awarded the label to the U.S. The difference was especially large in Germany, where 55% said China was the world’s top economy and 17% said the same of the U.S. – a difference of 38 percentage points. The U.S. was more likely to be seen as the top economy by those in emerging economies, which were mostly last surveyed in 2019 . China’s economy was also relevant to Americans and Australians when asked what they think about when they think about China. Roughly a fifth in both countries mentioned topics related to China’s economy when answering the question. Some critiqued China’s economy and its manufacturing practices, such as this Australian woman who mentioned “cheap trashy goods exported to Australia.” Others brought up China’s economic system: “Trying to get the best of capitalism and communism with economic benefits of capitalism and authoritarian nature of communism,” said one American man. Still others highlighted China’s economic growth and potential or referred to it as an “economic superpower.”

Photo showing security personnel wearing protective clothing check the temperatures of people entering a subway station in Beijing in January 2020 as part of the country's strict "zero COVID" policy. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images)

As COVID-19 spread around the globe in early 2020, views of China also shifted dramatically in advanced economies. 1 In Pew Research Center’s first international poll following the virus’s emergence, negative views of China increased by double digits in more than half of the countries surveyed. In Australia, for example, negative views went up 24 percentage points, from 57% who had an unfavorable view of China in 2019 to 81% who said the same in the summer of 2020. These changes are among the largest year-on-year changes in views of China visible in the Center’s nearly 20 years of polling on the topic.

Between 2019 and 2020, the share saying they had no confidence in Xi also increased precipitously in almost every country . In the U.S., for example, 50% had no confidence at all in Xi in 2019 and 77% said the same two years later. A similarly large shift also took place in Australia. Outside of Japan – where eight-in-ten already had no confidence in Xi in 2019 – views shifted around 10 points or more in every country for which there were trends available.

Bar chart showing mostly negative assessments of China’s coronavirus response in 2020

These negative views of China and the lack of confidence in Xi are closely related to the widespread sense that China did a bad job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. In 2020, around half or more in every country surveyed thought China had handled the pandemic poorly – including around two-thirds or more who said this in the U.S., Sweden, Denmark and all three countries surveyed in the Asia-Pacific region: Australia, South Korea and Japan.

Notably, assessments of China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak were generally much more negative than those of institutions like the World Health Organization and the EU and evaluations of their own country’s response. Still, in most countries, more thought China was doing a good job than said the same of the U.S.

An open-ended survey question asked in both Australia and the U.S. in 2021 revealed that when people think about China in the context of COVID-19, much of the focus is on how it originated . Respondents mentioned Wuhan, wet markets and even theories about China purposefully creating the virus in a lab. Others focused on a lack of transparency that caused the pandemic, such as one American woman who said “… they allowed the virus to spread globally by allowing citizens to fly out of their country but restricted travel within their own country,” or another woman who noted “… they knew about coronavirus well before they let anyone else know and caused much of this spread here.” In fact, to the degree that respondents mentioned how China combated the outbreak once it started, some complimented its relative success – even if it came with authoritarian measures or excesses (a sentiment some held even prior to the Shanghai lockdown in 2022).

How Australians and Americans speak about China and COVID-19 in their own words

“China has opened Pandora’s box with a worldwide pandemic that has devastated the world as we know it today. Economically and spiritually we now must endure a slow recovery, if in fact we are lucky enough to survive these trying times. China and China alone is totally responsible for the cover-up of their own deeds.” – Man, U.S.

“I think about the ruthlessness in which China deals with people at times, such as welding apartment doors shut in response to the pandemic, and how the military are engaged to quash dissent (i.e., public demonstrations). I also think of that doctor who was warned to not “spread information” when he tried to broadcast warnings about the dangers of COVID.” – Woman, Australia

“I think that China should be held accountable in some way for the outbreak of the coronavirus and pandemic. They should have to pay for the loss of so much money and especially for the lives lost of those who have passed away, still dealing with and who have had the virus. And definitely pay all of the money that has been lost and that our government is having to pay out for the effects of the coronavirus.” – Woman, U.S.

“China is an authoritarian regime, and its citizens are only exposed to government-sponsored information, effectively cutting them off from the realities of the world. China was only able to keep the COVID pandemic from spreading in its borders because it limited people’s rights and confined people against their will.” – Man, U.S.

In the U.S., adults were specifically asked about whether the Chinese government’s initial handling of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan was to blame for the global spread of the virus; 78% said the country deserved a great deal or a fair amount of the blame. Half of Americans further thought that the U.S. should hold China responsible for the role it played in the outbreak of the coronavirus, even if it meant worsening economic relations. Still, 38% thought the U.S. should prioritize strong U.S.-China relations, even if it meant overlooking any role China played in the outbreak. 2 While views of China’s handling of the pandemic improved somewhat by the summer of 2021 – especially in Europe – they nonetheless still lagged behind evaluations of most other organizations and countries (the notable exception being the U.S. ).

Photo showing people visit the Yu Garden in Shanghai during the celebration of the Lantern Festival marking the end of Lunar New Year celebrations on Feb. 15. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Data from the U.S. and Australia suggest that people are generally referring to the country’s government or the economy – not the people – when thinking about China. When asked what comes to mind when thinking about China, just 6% in Australia and 3% in the U.S. brought up people. In comparison, about a fifth or more in both the U.S. and Australia mentioned China’s political system or economy.

How Australians and Americans speak about Chinese people in their own words

“The Chinese people as individuals are no different than other people, but their government is a totalitarian Communist regime bent on conquering its neighbors and land-grabbing, as shown by their takeover of Hong Kong.” – Man, U.S.

“Disgusting; selfish; unethical; stingy; low quality; poor attitude; negative; bad people and leaders.” – Woman, Australia

“A country of humans, like all the other countries. An innovative, smart, and hardworking people. Their willingness to meet the needs of the global economy supersedes environmental and prudent usage of resources, which is disturbing.” – Man, U.S.

“The people as a whole are ok, the politicians and military are a bit to be desired.” – Man, Australia

Responses showed that views of China’s government were not automatically conflated with views of China’s people. Some made sure to contrast their positive views of China’s people with their negative views of the country’s government, such as this Australian woman who said, “The people themselves are lovely, but the government is power hungry.” Others specified that the negative views they expressed applied only to the government. “I’m concerned about the Chinese government but I don’t have a problem with their people,” said one American woman. The Center found a similar distinction between a country’s people and government with American views of Israel . Others had only positive things to say about Chinese people. An American man described China’s people as “warm, kind, intelligent, smart, hardworking,” and an Australian woman said, “They are strongly family-orientated and they at the same time don’t go overboard with the number of kids. They are hard workers.” Still, some made negative characterizations, using adjectives like “barbaric” or “dirty” or mentioning stereotypes: For example, an American woman referred to “dog and cat consumers” when discussing China.

Older data shed some additional light on what traits Americans associate with Chinese people. In 2012 , Americans were asked whether certain attributes described the Chinese people, and majorities described the Chinese people using positive attributes like hardworking, inventive and modern. Substantial minorities also said honesty, tolerance or generosity described the people. Negative attributes like competitive and nationalistic were also widely associated with the Chinese people, while roughly a quarter or more said aggressiveness, greed, arrogance, selfishness, rudeness and violence applied to the Chinese people.

Japanese people were also  asked about the same stereotypes in 2016  and generally had few positive things to say about the Chinese, with majorities describing them as arrogant, nationalistic and violent. Even when it comes to the trait of being hardworking, only a minority of Japanese said it described Chinese people – down significantly between 2016 and 2006.

Bar chart showing Australian and American views of China tied to support for limiting Chinese students studying in their country

Though Americans and Australians mostly had the government or economy in mind when thinking about China, the Center nonetheless found that those with unfavorable views of China were about 20 percentage points more likely to support restricting Chinese students studying in the U.S. or Australia. In 2021, 55% in the U.S. and 50% in Australia supported limiting Chinese students studying in their country. Those holding unfavorable views of China were significantly more likely than those with favorable views to hold this opinion. Likewise, those who saw China as an enemy of their country were more likely to support limits on Chinese students than those who saw China as a partner or competitor; those who thought China was doing a bad job handling the pandemic were more likely than those who believed China was doing a good job to support such limits.

Support for restricting Chinese students studying in the country was also related to age and partisanship. Australians and Americans ages 18 to 29 were less likely than their older counterparts to support limits on Chinese students. Republicans in the U.S. and supporters of the then-governing center-right Liberal National Coalition in Australia were more likely than Democrats and nonsupporters of The Coalition, respectively, to favor limitations on the number of Chinese students attending their country’s college or universities.

In 2021, some in the U.S. saw a connection between racist political rhetoric about China and a rise in violence against Asian Americans. Among Asian Americans who said violence against Asians in the U.S. was increasing, a fifth attributed the increased violence to former President Donald Trump’s language about China as the source of the pandemic, such as his racist references to “kung flu” or the “Chinese flu.”

About this essay

This essay was made possible by The Pew Charitable Trusts. Pew Research Center is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts, its primary funder. It is a collaborative effort based on the input and analysis of a number of individuals and experts at Pew Research Center. Results presented in  this data essay  are drawn from nationally representative surveys conducted over the past 20 years in more than 60 countries. For detailed tables on views of China, see the  Appendix .

  • Pew Research Center had to curb its international polling in developing and emerging economies because of the COVID-19 outbreak. We hope to be able to resume these face-to-face surveys in 2023. ↩
  • The 8% of adults who say the Chinese government’s initial handling of the virus is  not at all  to blame for the global spread of the virus were not asked this follow-up question, while 5% expressed no opinion, either to the first or second question. ↩

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About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .


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