When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits the United States, he is among compatriots – 4.4 million of them.

India has the largest diaspora in the world, with around 18 million of its citizens living in other countries. The US is their top destination: in 2017, people of Indian descent made up 1.3% of the American population, and they are the most successful immigrants in the country.

As economist Nirvikar Singh says in an interview with the University of California Santa Cruz, “Indian entrepreneurship is a very important engine of economic growth." The co-author of a book on the Indian diaspora in the US notes that 8% of the founders of high-tech companies are Indian. With Sundar Pichai running Google and Satya Nadella the CEO of Microsoft, Indians play a prominent role in some of America’s biggest tech firms.

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Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Economic factors lure large numbers of Indians to the Persian Gulf, particularly the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is home to 3.1 million Indians. The number of Indians living in the UAE and other countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Oman increased fourfold in the space of a decade, from 2 million in 2005 to more than 8 million in 2015.

Indian diaspora is a numbers game

Despite a sizeable outflow, India is still home to 1.39 billion people – and by 2027, it’s set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country. While there has been progress in reducing extreme poverty levels, there are still 176 million people living in poverty in India, and money remitted by expatriates is an important part of economic development and growth. In 2018, Indians abroad sent back $80 billion, making the country the leading recipient of funds from overseas.

According to the Reserve Bank of India, inward remittances helped to finance 43% of the country’s trade deficit in 2017-18. They also help to meet the needs of the poor by covering the cost of daily living expenses and allowing people to invest in business and education.

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Twenty countries or areas of origin with the largest diaspora populations (millions)
Image: UNDESA

The ever-changing direction of migration

With a significant spike in emigration since 2015, India has overtaken other countries that once represented significant migrant populations – many escaping political upheaval or conflict. This has increased Indian diaspora numbers by huge amounts.

Nearly 9 million people were displaced by the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2019, nearly half of all international migrants live in just 10 countries, with the Russian Federation – now home to 12 million migrants – among them.

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Image: United Nations


Ukraine follows a similar pattern, with the number of people leaving the country decreasing rapidly after 2000. Emigration from Mexico has also now levelled off. In 2007, there were 12.8 million Mexican migrants to the US. By 2014, that had dropped to 11.7 million – a number that continues to decline. On the other hand, Indian diaspora numbers have been increasing all through these years.

But there has been a huge jump in migration from Syria, with more than 5.6 million fleeing the country since war broke out in 201, and a steady rise in the number of people leaving Pakistan, where the government has encouraged outward migration as a way to combat unemployment, reduce poverty and earn foreign exchange through remittances.


In 2019, remittance flows to low- and middle-income countries are expected to reach $550 billion, becoming their largest source of external financing.