Journal Issue

International Migration: Who Goes Where?

International Monetary Fund. External Relations Dept.
Published Date:
January 1990
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Contrary to expectations, international migration has failed to decline in recent years and will decline in the next decade at a slower pace than estimated earlier. This movement of people across international boundaries has been spurred by the increasing economic interdependence of countries and the increasing ability of people to move to places where they are assured greater access to economic opportunity.

Net international migration (i.e., the difference between immigrants and emigrants from a country) is estimated to be 1.1 million persons per year over 1985–90 for all receiving countries. Projections for the 1990s, based on revised migration statistics of the World Bank (see box), indicate that total net immigration will decline only gradually to an annual level of 990,000 over 1990–95 and 890,000 over 1995–2000.

The effect of these movements on national population estimates is small for most countries, since international migration is usually the least important component of changes in population size. International migration, however, may have an impact far greater than its absolute size would suggest because of its effects on international monetary remittances, the transfer of skills and knowledge, social change, and political developments.

The United States continues to hold a central position in international migration flows, receiving as many immigrants annually as all other countries in the world put together. An estimated 740,000 immigrants move to the United States permanently each year, including both legal (see chart) and illegal immigrants. Even after subtracting the estimated 160,000 persons who emigrate from the United States annually, the United States still receives 580,000 net immigrants per year. Although net immigration is expected to decline very slightly over time, the United States will actually increase its relative importance as a prime destination for immigrants in the 1990s. Australia and Canada are the next most popular destinations for immigrants, followed by Saudia Arabia and Côte d’Ivoire. No other country has net immigration exceeding 25,000 persons per year.

Immigrants come to …

(In thousands)

Source: See box with text.

Note: The countries and territories specified receive the largest totals of net immigrants.

1Tied for tenth place.

Economic considerations still dominate decisions to migrate. More than half of the major receiving countries and territories are in highly developed regions and all but one (Côte d’Ivoire) had per capita GNP of at least $6,900 in 1987. Not surprisingly, the largest source countries of migrants are all in less developed regions (see maps and table). Mexico is by far the largest net exporter of international migrants and its share in migrant flows is expected to increase in the 1990s. Most of the other major countries or territories of origin are in Asia.

These estimates and projections presented must be interpreted with caution, however, due to the inadequacy of data on legal immigration and emigration, and unreliable data on illegal migration, which by its very nature goes unrecorded in official statistics. Moreover, projections of future international migration may fall wide of the mark as a result of major unforeseen economic and political developments. For example, the international migration estimates for the Federal Republic of Germany were made before the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) removed foreign travel restrictions on its citizens. No one could have predicted the rapidity with which the Berlin Wall tumbled in November 1989.

Legal Immigrants Admitted to the United States: Fiscal Years 1900-88

Source: US Immigration and Naturalization Service, Statistical Yearbook, 1988. US Government Printing Office: Washington. DC., 1939 (p. xvi).

Emigrants come from …

(In thousands)

Source: See box with text.

Note: The countries specified have the largest totals of net emigrants.

Despite the uncertainties inherent in international migration estimates and projections for individual countries, the broad outlines of worldwide migration patterns through the end of this century are clear: relatively large numbers of persons will continue to move from less developed to more developed countries. Barring any radical changes in underlying conditions, the United States will continue to function in its important historical role as a nation that welcomes immigrants.

For further reference see “Revised Estimates and Projections of International Migration: 1980–2000,” by Fred Arnold, Policy, Planning and Research Working Paper Number 275, The World Bank, and World Population Projections: 1989–90 Edition by Rodolfo Bulatao, Eduard Bos, Patience Stephens, and My Vu, The World Bank.

Fred Arnold

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