Trends in Global Migration over the Past Decades

September 4, 2023

The enhancement of technology in travel and the proliferation of digital communication has enabled people to maintain ties with loved ones no matter which corner of the world they move to. So unlike ages ago, it’s much more convenient today for families and individuals to relocate for work or higher studies to varied countries.

The movement of people across international borders, either temporarily or permanently, is known as global migration. Over the past decades, unpredictable situations such as economic crises, political instability, epidemics, regional conflicts and commotions have compelled people to migrate, thereby increasing the overall count of international migrants.

This article draws on the most current data sources to showcase patterns of international migration, highlighting the size and growth of the migrant population over time, and the major regions people choose to relocate.

Number and Share of Global Migrants

Over the years, a lot has changed, and more people are choosing to emigrate than ever before be it for education, career opportunities or a better life. According to a report from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there were 281 million migrants globally in 2020 (3.6 percent of the world’s 7.8 billion population), while these figures were 272 million in 2019 and 173 million in 2000.

Comparison of World Migration Reports 2000 & 2022


Top Countries for International Migrants

People migrate to top-tier nations in search of better opportunities and to experience life abroad. According to statistics, though North America and Europe receive the largest share of migrants worldwide, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region are witnessing increasing migrants due to regional conflicts.

The United States is the world’s top migrant destination with 50.6 million as of 2020 than the next four receiving countries—Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United Kingdom with combined 50.2 million. The UAE, the UK, France, Canada, Spain and Australia joined the list of top 10 migrant destinations since 1990.

Among sending countries are the middle-income nations such as Syria, Mexico, Russia, China and India.

Data reveal around 77 percent of Mexican migrants live in the US, while migrants from India are more scattered across the world, including the US, UAE, Oman and more. Labor migrants from Asia and Africa flock to Gulf countries.

In this next part, we discuss the top 4 reasons that propel migration to countries world over.

Better quality of life

As people in developing and underdeveloped nations find themselves lacking necessities such as food, medical care and safety the desire for a better life influences their decision to migrate. Also, remittances sent by migrant workers to households in their home country helps families sail through temporary economic crisis, or support children’s education. High-income countries are the main source of remittances for middle-and low-income countries.

The top five remittance-receiving countries in 2020 were India, China, Mexico, the Philippines, and Egypt. Combined these countries received more than $250 billion (36 percent) of officially recorded remittances. For decades, the US has consistently been the top remittance-sending country in followed by the UAE, KSA, Switzerland and Germany.

Employment opportunities

Rising unemployment levels and low wages compel a significant number of migrant workers to leave their countries. Labor migration, which often involves temporary movement for work, helps them find jobs with better remuneration and working policies so that their families benefit from money inflows.

Global migration is majorly driven by employment opportunities as depicted in the IOM report i.e. 73 percent of the migrants were of working age (between 20 – 64 years old). Some countries have implemented policies to attract skilled migrants and fill gaps in their workforce. This is why a significant number of South Asians leave the sub region to work in GCC countries. Saudi Arabia alone houses 2.5 million migrants from India and over 1 million from Bangladesh.

Family unions

Family is another major driver of migration. Family migration occurs due to new or established family ties: reunification with a member who migrated earlier, family accompanying a principal migrant, marriage between an immigrant and a citizen, marriage between an immigrant and a foreigner and international adoptions.

Though data on family migration is limited, the ones available indicate that around 1.9 million migrants moved to OECD countries for family reasons in 2018 and this constitutes nearly 41 percent of total migration chart.

Higher studies

Students seeking higher education often migrate to countries with reputable universities. According to UNESCO data, close to 6.1 million students were studying abroad in 2019, up from 4.8 million in 2015 and 2 million in 2000.

The top five destinations for international students were the US, Australia, the UK, Germany, and the Russian Federation. Combined, they hosted 43 percent of global students. The top sending countries were China, India, Vietnam, Germany and France.


Retirement, which marks the end of one’s working career, is an important phase in an individual’s life. From 1990 to 2020 the number of older migrants in high- and middle- income countries increased by nearly 16 million from 1990 to 2020, while in low-income countries it only increased by 76,587. As migrants from low-income countries tend to return to their countries only after a certain age, this explains why migrants who subsequently aged are rising only in high- and middle- income countries

Migration across borders is a dynamic phenomenon influenced by several interconnected factors and the patterns can vary significantly based on regional circumstances and policies. However, studying migration trends offers valuable insights and helps you make an informed decision that contributes to you and your family’s well-being and that of society as well.

Disclaimer: The stories are a work of fiction based on facts. Identies and details may have been altered to suit the narrative.