Global International Migrant Stock: The UK in International Comparison
This briefing uses data from the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) World Migration Stock Estimates, to provide an overview of the global stock of international migrants, including refugees, and to compare the UK to other countries and world regions.
This briefing will be updated when new data becomes available
- The global stock of international migrants was around 214 million in 2010, representing 3% of the world’s population. The migrant share of the global population has remained at 3% over the past several decades.
- There were about 6.5 million foreign-born persons in the UK in 2010. The UK occupies the seventh place in the world in terms of total international migrants, just behind the USA, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Canada and France.
- The share of international migrants in the UK population (about 10.4%) is slightly above the European level (9.5%).
- The UK occupies the tenth place in terms of the gross number of international refugees globally, and when measuring refugees as a share of the population, the UK is above the European level. There are, however, difficulties related to comparisons of the stock of international refugees across countries.
- The UK has a larger ratio of female to male migrants than most OECD countries, Europe, Africa, Asia, Northern America and Latin America.
Understanding the evidence
The UNPD data provide the stock of international migrants in each country across time using intervals of five years. The main sources of information are the population censuses of individual countries (70% of countries). In some instances, the data are from population registers (17% of countries) and nationally representative surveys (13% of countries). In most cases the definition of the stock of international migrants is the stock of foreign-born residents (close to 80% of countries), but the stock of foreign-nationals is used for some countries (close to 20% of countries). In order to obtain estimates across years, UNPD applies methods of interpolation and extrapolation. At the time of publication, 2010 figures were based on extrapolations or projections from previous years. The figures provided are mid-year estimates (as of 1 July of the years indicated).
The global stock of international migrants increased from 156 million in 1990 to about 214 million in 2010. Females represent about half of the migrants around the word, a share that has been relatively stable over time (see Figure 1). About 8% of international migrants were refugees in 2010, a share that has decreased slightly over time. Refugees represented about 12% of global migrants in 1990.
Figure 2 shows the stock of international migrants in 2000 and 2010 for a selected group of OECD countries along with the changes since 2000. In the rest of the discussion in this briefing, the figures for the OECD countries refer to those selected countries in Figure 2. Note that the estimates exclude some of the 33 country members (e.g. developing country members and eastern European countries) with migration patterns that are different from the majority of OECD countries. The selected countries hosted over 100 million international migrants in total in 2010. The UK has one of the highest stocks of migrants among this group, although the increase in the stock during the 2000s for the UK was modest compared to other countries. For example, Spain had a stock of migrants well below the UK level in 2000, but the data suggest that the migrant stock in Spain is now close to the UK level. Nevertheless, the UK international migrant stock remains above the group average.
The UK occupies the seventh place in the world in terms of the international migrant stock (using 2010 stock estimates). Four OECD countries (USA, Germany, Canada and France) as well as Russia and Saudi Arabia have a larger migrant stock than the UK. This position, however, represents a move up in the rankings from the ninth position in 2000. The UK has been a top-ten country in terms of absolute migrant numbers at least since 1995.
The global population increased from 5.3 billion people in 1990 to close to 7 billion people in 2010. This means that, despite the increase in the global number of migrants, the share of migrants in the world population has remained very stable at about 3%.
Nonetheless, there are interesting dynamics for specific regions and countries (see Figure 3). Northern America, the OECD countries in Figure 2, Europe and the UK have experienced an increase in the stock of migrants as a share of the population. The shares for Northern America and the selected OECD countries have been consistently higher than the share of the UK population, but there has been some catching up during the last decade. Meanwhile, the migrant share in the UK population has surpassed that of Europe as a whole in recent years.
A comparison of the migrants shares of the population between the UK and the six countries that had a larger migrant stock in 2010 (see information in previous section), suggests that the UK has a smaller migrant share of the population than Saudi Arabia, Canada, USA, Germany and France but a higher share than Russia. While the relative global standing of the UK in terms of migrants as a share of the population has increased over time, the UK remains in the middle of the global rankings. For further discussion of the migrant share of the UK population see the briefing on 'Migrants in the UK: An Overview'.
UK ranks second in Europe in number of international refugees (about 300,000) but sixth in Europe in international refugees relative to total population (close to 0.5%)
It is difficult to estimate the global stock of international refugees. Many countries (especially developing countries) do not allow refugees to become “regular” migrants or acquire citizenship, and therefore the estimates do reflect the stock of refugees over time. Other countries, however, allow refugees to change status, hence, the estimates are likely to underestimate the true stock of refugees.
Estimates suggest that there were about 16 million international refugees in 2010, but that the global stock of international refugees has decreased over time. There are, however, important differences across regions and countries. Asia is the leading region of the world in the number of international refugees (66% of the total), followed by Africa (16%). About two-thirds of the refugees in Asia are in Western Asia and about one-third in Southern Asia. Europe experienced a sharp increase in refugees until the mid-1990s, but this number has decreased in 2010 to about 1,593,350, down from 3,004,861 in 1995. The increase in refugees in Europe during the early 1990s is likely to have been due to flows that resulted from the breakdown of the Soviet Union (Hatton 2009). International refugees constituted less than 8% of the global stock of international migrants in 2010. Refugees represented close to 5% of all international migrants in the UK during 2010 (see Figure 4), a share that is higher than Europe, the selected OCED countries and Northern America, but lower than Latin America, Africa and Asia. In some countries such as Syria and Jordan, refugees constitute over 70% of all migrants. The number of refugees as a share of all migrants in the UK has a positive trend over time, although it decreased from 2005 to 2010. The number of refugees as a share of all migrants also decreased in Europe and the selected OECD countries for this period.
Considering refugees as a share of the total population, the UK share (close to 0.5%) is above the levels for the selected OCED countries and Europe. In 2010 the UK accounted for 19% of the refugees in Europe (and 14% in the selected OECD countries), while having only 9% of the total population (and 7% of the population of the selected OECD countries). Only one European country (Germany) has more international refugees than the UK. Germany with about 592,000 has almost double the number of refugees than the UK (about 300,000).
In terms of the global ranking for 2010, the UK occupied 10th place in terms of the number of international refugees (eleventh place if we include the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as the UNPD categorises all residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territory as refugees). Out of the nine countries above the UK, four are in the Middle East (Jordan, Syria, Iran and Lebanon) and only two are OECD countries (Germany and USA). Yet the UK is not a world leader in terms of refugees as a share of the population and the estimates for 2010 suggest that the country is in the middle of the global rankings.
The UK has a larger ratio of female to male migrants than most OECD countries, Europe, Africa, Asia, Northern America and Latin America
Figure 5 shows the ratio of males to females among migrants. At the global level, male migrants outnumber female migrants but this is not the case in several of the regions/groups presented in the Figure. Since the mid-1990s the UK seems to have a larger relative representation of female migrants, slightly more so than Europe as a whole. Moreover, while there is a decreasing trend in this rate for Europe, there is an increasing trend for the UK. The UNPD data also suggests that the ratio of female to male migrants seems to be particularly high in Eastern European countries. However, the UK has a higher ratio than most other European countries.
The UK is the fifth country in the world in terms of the absolute stock of female migrants (behind USA, Russia, Germany and Canada), up from the eighth place in 2000 and tenth place in 1990.
Evidence gaps and limitations
In countries where international refugees typically integrate into the population (mostly developed countries), the majority of refugees are counted by the population census. However, in many places refugees reside in camps and the census may fail to count refugees in these cases. The estimates from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are the main source of information on the number of international refugees in these countries. In 2007, UNHCR included in the estimates people in refugee-like situations (even if not recognized as refugees). These individuals left their countries before 2007, but only appear in the statistics at that date. This group is part of the 2010 projections of the international migrant stock. See UNPD (2009) for further details.
The UNPD dataset allows for international comparisons but the comparison across countries is less than perfect. The factors that can make international comparisons problematic include differences in data collection practices between countries, the changing nature of borders and political/economic unions, irregular immigration and varying degrees of naturalization of the foreign-born. Finally, stock estimates include migrations from some considerable time ago and do not capture the current patterns of migration, but the cumulative effects over the years. While recognizing these limitations, this dataset remains the most useful and most widely used in international comparisons of migrant stocks (Skeldon 2011).
- Hatton, T.J. “The Rise and Fall of Asylum: What Happened and Why?” Economic Journal 119 (2009): 183-213.
- Skeldon, R. “Migration and its Measurement: Towards a More Robust Map of Bilateral Flows.” In Handbook of Research Methods in Migration, edited by Carlos Vargas-Silva. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing, forthcoming 2011.
- United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division. Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2008 Revision CD-Rom Documentation. New York: United Nations, 2009.
- Parsons, C.R., R. Skeldon, T.L. Walmsley, and L.A. Winters. “Quantifying International Migration: a Database of Bilateral Migrant Stocks.” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, World Bank, Washington DC, 2007.
- Ratha, D. and W. Shaw. “South-South Migration and Remittances.” World Bank Working Paper, World Bank, Washington DC, 2007.
- United Nations High Commission for Refugees Division of Programme Support and Management. 2009 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons. Geneva: UNHCR, 2010.
Thanks to Philip Martin and Ron Skeldon for helpful comments and suggestions for this briefing.