6 things you didn't know about refugees and migration

A globe focusing on Europe and North Africa: We need to pay attention to regional dynamics of migration.

We need to pay attention to regional dynamics of migration. Image: Unsplash/Krzysztof Hepner

Marie McAuliffe
Head, Migration Research, International Organization for Migration (IOM)
Adrian Kitimbo
Research Associate, Gordon Institute of Business Science, University of Pretoria
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  • Migration is often seen through the narrow lens of the prominent political issue of the day, providing a distorted picture of the data.
  • Migration patterns around the world are riddled with complexities that often challenge the preconceptions that dominate the headlines.
  • Policymakers need to understand key regional trends if they are to develop effective policies that lead to safe and well-managed migration.

Around the world, more than 281 million people are living, working or seeking refuge in a country other than their country of origin. People migrate for a wide variety of reasons and migration patterns vary hugely between regions.

So often, we read and hear about migration from a national perspective, portrayed as a negative domestic political issue. This focus can mask the reality that migration patterns and processes are very closely linked to geography and that key regional features develop over decades. Thus, greater recognition of regional and sub-regional migration patterns, variations and complexities can assist in formulating strategic and sustainable policy responses.

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Here are six graphics from the latest World Migration Report that show why we need to understand the regional dimensions of migration:

1. Countries serve as host and origin for refugees

Large-scale refugee crises are frequently in the headlines and while we often read about countries that are either origin of large numbers of refugees or hosting large numbers of refugees, sometimes a nation can be doing both. This trend is particularly prevalent in Africa, where countries like Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia have both populations of people seeking refuge within their borders, while others are fleeing the same country. It demonstrates that policymakers must understand the distinct regional circumstances to address the causes of displacement.

Top 10 African countries by total refugees and asylum seekers, 2020

2. More migration happens within Africa than from Africa

A classic portrayal in Europe is of a “flood” of people from sub-Saharan Africa trying to leave behind poverty and hardship and make it to the European Union through irregular means. The reality, however, is that migration in Africa is predominantly intraregional, with around 21 million African international migrants living in another African country in 2020. The number of Africans living outside the continent was lower, at around 17 million, with the majority (11 million) in Europe. This trend is partly due to the success of sub-regional free movement arrangements, which demonstrate that people will seek the opportunity for betterment closer to their country of origin if the legal means to do so exists.

Migrants to, within and from Africa, 1990–2020

3. Internal displacement affects every continent on earth

Internal displacement is happening all over the world. While the 42 countries reporting internal displacement due to conflict and violence in 2020 were mostly situated in the Global South, far more countries (144) reported displacement caused by disaster. These nations were spread all over the globe in all six world UN regions. While less low-income countries often endure the worst climate-related internal displacements, it is clear that no geographic region is immune. In 2020, for example, wildfires resulted in 23,000 new displacements in Greece, Spain and France, while storms and hurricane events also caused internal displacements across Europe.

Conflict displacements (top) and disaster displacements (bottom) in 2020 by location

4. Asia's serious refugee situation has mostly been contained in Asia

Before the Ukraine crisis, all three of the world’s major displacement events were in Asia, with the Syrian Arab Republic and Afghanistan the top origin countries of refugees in the world in 2020. Persecution of Rohingya in recent years has led to Myanmar becoming the third-largest refugee origin country in the region. Asia is also hosting the highest number of refugees, showing that people are most likely to stay close to their country of origin when fleeing conflict, with neighbouring countries bearing the greatest burden.

Top 10 Asian countries by total refugees and asylum seekers, 2020

5. Most international migrants in Europe are European

Contrary to media coverage around migrants and migration in Europe, more than half of all international migrants living in Europe in 2020 came from another European country. Of the 87 million migrants living in Europe, 44 million were born in Europe and the number of people migrating within their continent has been steadily rising since 1990 as more people take advantage of the expanding Schengen free movement agreement. There has also been a significant increase in migration to Europe from other regions over the last three decades, with most people coming from Asia.

Migrants to, within and from Europe, 1990–2020

6. Northern America experiences the least emigration but the most immigration

The dynamics across North America and Latin America and the Caribbean vary greatly from Europe, Asia, and Africa, where intra-regional migration has become a key trend. Conversely, migration in Latin America and the Caribbean is dominated by emigration to other regions, especially Northern America. In 2020, over 25 million migrants had made the journey north, with the Latin American and Caribbean population living in Northern America increasing from 10 million in 1990. There is also very little intra-regional migration in Northern America or migration from Northern America to another continent.

Migrants to, within and from North America, 1990–2020

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