Debunking Global Migration Myths The world today consists of vast networks of floating populations, and a lot of myths — and misunderstandings — surround the issue of global migration. Here, we try to set the record straight with a true-or-false test.
NPR logo Debunking Global Migration Myths

Debunking Global Migration Myths

The current debate over immigration in the United States is part of a much larger global issue. The world today consists of vast networks of floating populations — from the Indian construction worker who moves to Dubai to the American retiree who heads for the beaches of Acapulco. A lot of myths, and misunderstandings, surround the issue of global migration. Here, we try to set the record straight with a true-or-false test.

We know how many people are international migrants.

False. There are some 200 million migrants — defined as people living for at least one year outside their home country — globally. But that figure includes undocumented migrants, who are not easily counted. In Europe for instance, the estimates of undocumented migrants range from 6 to 15 million. Also, immigration figures do not include people moving within a country. In China, for instance, at least 100 million people in search of work have moved from rural areas to big cities like Beijing and Shanghai.

More people are picking up roots than at any time in history.

True and false. In absolute numbers, there are more immigrants than ever. But during the last age of globalization, from 1870 to 1915, the percentage of the world population that migrated was slightly larger than it is today.

Migration is not a new phenomenon. As early as 1620, some cities had huge immigrant populations. In Amsterdam, for example, one-quarter of the residents were foreign-born. But there are some big differences today. For instance, in years past, it was difficult to travel from one country to another, yet relatively easy to clear any regulatory hurdles once you arrived. The reverse is true today. Modern technology makes it easy to travel, but migration is now highly regulated in most parts of the world.

Only a few countries accept immigrants.

False. Virtually every country in the world opens its doors to at least a few immigrants. Traditionally, a handful of countries — the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia — welcomed the majority of immigrants, but that is changing. Today, there are 70 countries where at least 10 percent of the population is foreign-born, according to United Nations figures. Some countries, such as Italy and Spain, have transformed themselves from nations of net emigration to nations of net immigration. Spain is now one of the 10 biggest immigrant magnets in the world.

Germany has never considered itself a nation of immigrants, but lately that is exactly what it has become. More than 9 percent of the German population is foreign-born — mostly immigrants from Poland and Turkey. Germany, like many countries, does not grant "birthright citizenship." That means that children of immigrants, born on German soil, do not automatically become German citizens.

The United States has a much larger immigrant population than other countries.

True. With 35 million foreign-born residents, the United States, by far, has the world's largest immigrant population. Russia, second to the United States in immigrant population, has only one-third of that number. Some countries, though, have more immigrants as a percentage of their total population. In some Persian Gulf countries, such as Qatar, more than 80 percent of the population consist of foreign guest workers.

Most migrants are men.

False. Half of all international immigrants are women, and the percentage grows each year.

Most migration is from poor countries to wealthy developed ones.

False. Some 60 percent of all global migration is within the developed world. This so-called "south-south migration" might include a Bangladeshi laborer moving to India or an Indian laborer moving to Kuwait, for example.

The number of refugees is at an all-time high.

False. The number of refugees peaked in the early 1990s, due to the exodus of thousands escaping wars in the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. At that time, there were some 20 million refugees around the world, compared with about 12 million today.

Migrants always move to the country that is closest geographically.

False. The vast majority of immigrants entering the United States come from Mexico, but many of Germany's immigrants come from Turkey, even though the two countries don't share a border. Family ties and historical roots often determine migration patterns.

Migration is a one-way street. Once people leave, they never go back or take a role in their former country.

False. Many immigrants return to their homelands in a growing trend known as "reverse migration." For instance, a small but growing number of Indian immigrants living in the United States are returning to India. Even if they don't return home, immigrants these days often play an active role in the politics of their homeland. They run Web sites, donate to charities and vote in elections, said Linda Newland, director of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

The biggest part of this trend, called "trans-nationalism," is financial. Each year, immigrants send about $230 billion to their home countries. "The fact is ... that migration is a two-way, multi-directional process," said John Slocum, director of the Initiative on Global Migration at the MacArthur Foundation.

All countries discourage their citizens from emigrating.

False. Some countries, such as the Philippines, actively encourage their citizens to seek employment abroad. The money they send home represents an important source of revenue—10 percent of GDP, which is more than any other nation. In the Philippines, returning overseas workers are treated like conquering heroes. A special government department caters to their needs, and they even get a fast-track line at the airport.

In the future, international migration is expected to accelerate.

False. Global migration depends on world events—wars and economic cycles — and on the obstacles that governments erect to limit the number of immigrants entering their countries. And while the number of worldwide migrants is large, it still represents a relatively small slice of the global population—only about 3 percent. "The amazing thing," Slocum said, "is not that so many people pick up and move, but that so many choose to stay put."

Sources: United Nations Population Division, International Organization for Migration, Migration Policy Institute and The MacArthur Foundation