New UN data on international migrants highlights special responsibility for destination countries in the Global Compact for Migration

Large movements of refugees and migrants around the world since 2015, many in response to humanitarian crises, have led to a global negotiation at the United Nations (UN) to create a new Global Compact for Migration (GCM). The GCM will be a non-binding international agreement to establish a new regime for cooperation on international migration that can maximize the benefits of migration and better protect migrants in vulnerable situations. While governments—minus the United States—continue to negotiate the GCM, it’s important to step back and reflect on the lives at stake. The latest UN report and data on migration from the UN Population Division helps by providing a snapshot of migrants around the world. These data can assist policymakers who are currently negotiating the GCM’s substantive provisions, who should remember to take into account their special responsibilities to protect the human rights of all migrants who live and work within their borders.

The UN Population Division reported that there were 258 million international migrants worldwide in 2017, meaning that 3.4 percent of people had been living outside of their country-of-birth for at least one year. The number of international migrants rose by 10 million from 248 million in 2015, but was unchanged as a share of the global population. The number of migrants in 2017 is an increase of 50 percent from 173 million in 2000, rising 0.6 percent from 2.8 percent of the global share of the population in 2000. Almost 75 percent of international migrants are of prime working age, meaning between the ages of 20-64. Men were 52 percent of international migrants in 2017 and women 48 percent.

By continent, Asia hosted 80 million international migrants, Europe 78 million, North America 58 million, Africa 25 million, Latin America 9.5 million, and Oceania 8.4 million. Europe’s population would have declined between 2000 and 2015 had it not been for the arrival of international migrants.

Most international migrants, some 146 million or 57 percent, are in the more developed countries (as defined by the UN) in Europe, Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The share of international migrants among residents of more developed countries rose from less than 10 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2017.

A separate category devised by the UN distinguishes migrants in high-, middle-, and low-income countries. There were 165 million migrants in high-income countries, 64 percent of the total, including some in countries that are considered high income but are also considered less developed, like Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, and many Gulf oil-exporting countries.

Middle-income countries such as Mexico, Morocco, and Turkey had 32 percent of the world’s migrants, and low-income countries from Bangladesh to Zimbabwe had four percent.

Half of all international migrants were in 10 countries and two-thirds were in 20 countries. The United States hosts the most international migrants, 50 million, accounting for nearly 20 percent of all international migrants around the world (including five million Puerto Ricans the UN counts as international migrants who moved to the U.S. mainland). The United States is followed Saudi Arabia and Germany, each hosting 12.2 million, 11.6 million in Russia, 8.6 million in the United Kingdom, and 8.3 million in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The 11 countries that each had at least six million international migrants hosted 53 percent of all international migrants, including France, Canada, Australia, Spain, and Italy.

Table 1

Number of international migrants, and migrant share of global and national populations in listed countries, 2017

International migrants (in millions) Share of international migrants International migrant share of national population
World 257.7 100%
United States 49.8 19% 15%
Saudi Arabia 12.2 5% 37%
Germany 12.2 5% 15%
Russia 11.7 5% 8%
United Kingdom 8.6 3% 13%
UAE 8.3 3% 88%
France 7.9 3% 12%
Canada 7.9 3% 22%
Australia 7 3% 29%
Spain 5.9 2% 13%
Italy 5.9 2% 10%
Top 11 137.4 53% N/A
 More developed 145.6 56% 12%
 Less developed 111.7 43% 2%
 High-income 164.8 64% 14%
 Middle Income 81.4 32% 1%
 Low income 10.9 4% 2%

Source: UN Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs,

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Three-fourths of the nearly 50 percent increase in the total number of international migrants since 2000 was in high-income countries, and half was in more-developed countries, highlighting the importance of distinguishing between high-income and more developed countries. The United States accounted for 18 percent of the increase in the migrant stock between 2000 and 2017, while Saudi Arabia accounted for eight percent of the increase.

The highest shares of migrants among the national population were in Gulf oil-exporting countries such as the UAE, with 88 percent, Kuwait with 76 percent, and Qatar with 65 percent. 30 percent of Switzerland’s population are migrants, Australia 29 percent, Canada 22 percent, and the United States 15 percent. Countries with fewer than one percent of migrants in the population include Mexico, Brazil, the Philippines, Vietnam, and China.

The latest UN data reveal that a small group of countries are hosting most of the international migrants around the world. The major countries of destination should commit in the GCM to cooperating with countries of origin to ensure that migrants can travel safely—especially when fleeing dangerous situations—and to providing migrants with equal rights and protection under the law wherever they reside.