In 2013, 232 million people – 3.2 per cent of the world's population – lived outside their country of origin. The majority of migrants cross borders in search of better economic and social opportunities. Others are forced to flee crises. Internal migration within countries is also on the rise.

The magnitude and complexity of migration makes it an important force in development and a high-priority issue for both developing and developed countries. The fact that almost half of all migrants are women, most of reproductive age, is another reason this a pressing issue for UNFPA.

UNFPA works to increase understanding of migration issues, advocate for better migration data, and promote the incorporation of migration into national development plans. UNFPA also advocates for addressing the special concerns of women and other vulnerable migrants, and works to meet the emergency reproductive health needs of refugees and internally displaced people.

A world on the move

Globalization has increased the mobility of labour. And in many developed countries, declining fertility and working-age populations have led to rising demand for workers from abroad to sustain national economies. Economic migrants are the world's fastest growing group of migrants, and many countries that once sent workers abroad – for example, Argentina, Ireland and South Korea – are now experiencing migrant inflows as well.

Migrants by origin and destination. 'South' refers to developing countries, and 'North' refers to developed countries. Source: Population Facts No. 2013/3

Although migration between continents receives significant attention, most international migrants move over smaller distances. North America and Oceania draw most international migrants from other regions, but the majority of migrants in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean still reside in the region where they were born. In 2013, 81.9 million migrants from developing countries lived in a developed country (called 'South to North' migration), while 82.3 million migrants from developing countries lived in another developing country (called 'South to South' migration).

People also move to escape. At the end of 2013, some 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Some 16.7 million persons were refugees, 33.3 million people were internally displaced, and close to 1.2 million were asylum-seekers. Crises can displace large populations over very short periods: Between December 2012 and January 2013, for example, more than 255,000 Syrians had fled the country.

Internal migration – movement within countries - is also increasing, as people respond to inequitable distributions of resources, services and opportunities, or to flee violence, natural disaster or the increasing number of extreme weather events. The movement of people from rural to urban areas has contributed to the explosive growth of cities around the globe.

High fertility and rapid population growth in some developing countries create pressures to emigrate by straining infrastructure and social service systems. At the same time, migration has also become an important component of population growth in countries where fertility has declined. In some parts of Europe and Asia, migration is mitigating population declines related to low fertility and population ageing.

Female migration

Female migrants as a percentage of all international migrants. Source: Population Facts No. 2013/2

One of the most significant changes in migration patterns in the last half century is that more women are migrating on their own than ever before. Women now constitute almost half the international migrant population, and in some countries, as much as 70 or 80 per cent. Since women migrants frequently end up in low-status, low-wage production and service jobs, and they often work in gender-segregated and unregulated sectors of the economy, such as domestic work, they are exposed to a much higher risk of exploitation, violence and abuse. Women migrants are particularly vulnerable to human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation, a multimillion-dollar business. Trafficked women are exposed to sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, yet they have little access to medical or legal services.

Vulnerable migrants

Several million people migrate without proper authorization each year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Such migrants often face dangerous journeys, exploitation by criminal smuggling networks, difficult working and living conditions, intolerance when they arrive on foreign soil, and lack of access to basic social services, including health care. Their irregular status often leaves them afraid to seek help when their rights are violated.

Migration and development

Migration is increasingly seen as a force that can contribute to development. Migrants make important contributions to the economic prosperity of their host countries, and the flow of financial, technological, social and human capital back to their countries of origin helps reduce poverty and stimulate economic development there as well.

Remittances – money sent from migrants to their families back home – are a major source of capital for developing countries. Remittances feed and educate children and generally improve the living standards of loved ones left behind. These financial transfers are growing in significance. Officially recorded remittances to developing countries are expected to reach $435 billion in 2014, an increase of 5 per cent over 2013. When remittances to high-income countries are included, the figure is estimated to reach $582 billion this year, and $608 billion next year.

In many countries, remittances are larger than either official development assistance or foreign direct investment. (Interestingly, available data show that women send home a higher proportion of their earnings than do men.) Migrants are also important vehicles for transmitting “social remittances” including new ideas, products, information and technology.

But migration has its negative aspects, as well: It can deprive countries of highly educated and skilled workers, a process known as “brain drain.” It can also separate families and increase inequalities between those who receive remittances and those who do not. There are now efforts to counteract the negative effects of brain drain, to encourage migrants to invest in their countries of origin, and to bring their knowledge, skills and technical expertise to the development process.

Efforts to harness the potential of migration include the successful UN High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development in October 2013 and the UN Secretary-General’s “Making migration work: an eight-point agenda for action”, which calls for: protecting the human rights of all migrants; reducing the costs of labour migration; eliminating migrant exploitation, including human trafficking; addressing the plight of stranded migrants; improving public perceptions of migrants; integrating migration into the development agenda; strengthening the migration evidence base; and enhancing migration partnerships and cooperation.

UNFPA at work

UNFPA works to ensure that international migration is recognized as an important factor in development. An active member of the Global Migration Group, UNFPA works to leverage the human, social and economic development potential of migration, advocating for better migration data to inform policies and promoting the incorporation of migration into national development plans. 

UNFPA also promotes policy dialogue and enhances governments' ability to respond to issues relating to international migration. The Fund supports research and policy-oriented studies, and assists governments in their capacity to collect migration statistics, including gender-specific data. UNFPA also advocates for addressing the special concerns of women and young migrants, include the elimination of discrimination, abuse and trafficking.

In emergencies, UNFPA works with partners to meet the reproductive health needs of refugees and internally displaced women. UNFPA also provides reproductive health services and counselling for victims of trafficking, and supplies technical assistance, training and support to governments and other agencies to help combat the problem.