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Most migrants did not go to Europe in 2015

Refugees await to be taken to the main facility where they apply for resettlement to Canada. (©IOM/Muse Mohammed)

Last year was a record year for migration. Some 244 million people lived in a country other than their home country of birth, far exceeding the prior record of 232 million set in 2013. The sudden surge of migrants trying to make their way into Europe over the past year has made it seem like Western countries are the top destination. But that isn’t true.

In fact, most migrants from developing countries are going to other developing countries, says the newest data from the International Organization for Migration. South-South migration flows, as they are called, totaled 90,2 million people in 2015. Migrants going from developing countries to wealthier countries were just behind with 85.3 million people.

And it should come as little surprise. The majority of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war live in neighboring countries. Roughly 4 million people are living as refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It is a significant reason why the more than 15 million refugees globally is up 45 percent as compared to the start of 2012.

The U.S. is overwhelmingly the top destination for migrants with more than 46 million people, but Germany, fueled by 442,000 asylum applications, overtook Russia as the second destination country hosting 12 million foreign-born people, last year. Top destinations in the global south are Malaysia, South Africa and Argentina. Significant movement also comes in regional blocs where people can freely pass from one country to the next for work.

What the data show is that the story of migration is far more complex than that of displacement by conflict. Gulf Cooperation Council countries like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait all rely heavily on foreign labor. All three have populations that are more than 70 percent foreign. With oil money and small native populations, the three must draw from places like Nepal, Myanmar and elsewhere for labor. Qatar has come under scrutiny in recent years for its labor schemes which restrict the rights of migrant workers to the point that some are de facto slaves.

Beyond the finite data, the story of global migration is one of consistency. Roughly 3 percent of people globally are living as migrants, a number the International Organization for Migration says is relatively stable over recent decades. Civil War in Syria has changed the shape of migration when it comes to popular attention, but the overall trend is holding steady.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]