Brief history and key facts:

From the very outset of human history some 60,000 years ago people have migrated to every corner of the world in the search of a better life. To begin with, migration can largely be put down to environmental factors, climate, and the availability of food. But very quickly migration has come to be associated with war, enslavement, colonialism, and political turmoil. The ancient Greeks expanded their dynasty with a laundry list of colonies. Ancient Rome sent its citizens as far north as Britain. Imperial China, too, used its military to expand its borders and house refugees in ever farther-flung borderlands. Jews fled their ancestral lands after waves of exile and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., creating a widespread diaspora. At least 12 million Africans were enslaved and forced to relocate to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade between 1500 and the 1860s. In the aftermath of World War II in 1945, hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and other civilians became displaced persons, emigrating all over the world. And at the end of the Vietnam War, over 125,000 people from Vietnam migrated to the United States in the face of a humanitarian crisis[1]. Further, as the British Colonial empire came to an end as many as 500,000 people from colonial territories migrated to the UK in the search of work as a colonial legacy robbed their own countries of the political stability necessary to foster the growth and development they sought. In the face of adversity, people have long taken the courageous decision to migrate and build a new and better life.

Today, more people than ever live in a country other than the one in which they were born. In 2019, the number of migrants globally reached an estimated 272 million, 51 million more than in 2010. The growth in the proportion of people migrating has largely been put down to the advancement of globalisation. With increased technology, transport, and communication links migration is a more accessible and attractive option than ever before. A large majority, numbering 164million, are migrant workers, relocating largely (although not always wholly) through a choice to gain better economic opportunities, join family, or study. Here in recent years, there has been a shift in where migrants are choosing to go. Previously migrants from less developed countries travelling to high income countries made up the majority of routes taken. This still remains, however on a less prominent scale with middle income countries seeing a rise of 7% in the numbers of migrants they received from 2013-2017[2].

Not all, however, migrate through choice. The total number of displaced people is the highest on record. Although the rate has slowed since 2012, the number of displaced people topped 70million in 2018. This number includes almost 26 million refugees, 3.5 million asylum seekers, and over 41 million internally displaced persons[3]. War and political instability sparked increased movement from Northern Africa and the Middle East to neighbouring countries and Europe. Persecution has forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh from Myanmar. Further, it is predicted that more than 143 million people will be forced to migrate due to climate emergencies[4]. Many things have changed since the start of human history, but the migration of people remains constant.

 Where are they going?

It is notoriously hard to track and collate data for migrant populations. However, the UN and the IOM have some long-term data that allows some estimates of the trends within the migration. They suggest that international migration is not uniform across the world and is largely influenced by economic, geographic, and demographic factors that create migration corridors over a period of years. The largest corridors tend to be from developing countries to larger economies such as Russia, the USA, and Saudi Arabia[5]. In addition, the Commonwealth and colonial links have been seen to influence migration routes. For example, the UK has a large Caribbean population, as France has a large Algerian population. This may be due to easier visa processing as well as a common language and other cultural similarities left by a colonial legacy.

It is estimated that India has the largest number of migrants living abroad, followed by Mexico and China. Whereas the top destination country is the USA. Also, interestingly, while most international migrants born in Africa, Asia, and Europe reside within their regions of birth, the majority of migrants from Latin America and the Caribbean, and Northern America reside outside their regions of birth.

Yet, these trends drastically change if you focus on asylum seekers, refugees, and displaced peoples. 68% of displaced people come from just 5 countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Instead of migrating to larger economies this group of people largely find themselves in neighbouring countries. 85% find themselves in developing countries where conditions are harsh, and resources limited. In fact, 80% of displaced people are in countries that face acute food insecurity. The only high-income country that makes it to the top 5 for hosting displaced people is Germany. This completely contradicts the current hype within many western media that Europe is being swarmed by an uncontrollable number of asylum seekers. When in fact it hosts just 10% of all refugees and just a fraction of displaced people, meaning the EU’s share of refugees is just 0.6% compared to its general population.  Whereas, Lebanon hosts a massive 13.4% in comparison to its population[6]

Why are Migrants important and why should we celebrate them?

In 2000, the UNGA made the 18th of December International Migrants Day, in recognition of the increased number of migrants around the world. Increased migration is seen with uncertainty and often fear. The rise of the far-right, nationalism, and xenophobia around the world can be seen as an extreme response to the uncertainty that the rapidly changing conditions of the world have bought with them. This new era is being framed as a migration crisis, something that can be blamed for the plight of a working-class man who is being failed time and time again by the capitalist, neo-liberal system. Migration has become a political tool, to divide and polarize. As a result, migrants often find themselves on the outskirts of society, face increasing inequality as well as increasing abuse. The international celebration is important to draw attention to the issues that they face and to encourage global co-operation and foster political will to overcome these challenges.

Yet too often, conversations around migration are focused on hardship, on inhumane detention centers, the horrors of human trafficking, conflict, and disaster. International Migrants Day is not just a point of advocacy but also an opportunity to highlight the importance of migrants throughout society and a celebration of collective action and social cohesion.

All over the world migrants are an integral part of society. Migration is more than just a transfer of people, but it is also a transfer of knowledge, technology, and skills. During what has seemed like an awful year for many, migrants have been at the forefront of our healthcare systems, transport, and food services. The long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine being distributed around the world was developed in part by a Turkish-born couple in Germany. This is not an anomaly, in the past 15 years, the number of people with a foreign-born background launching their own business has grown by a third in Germany. Migrants are more likely to take risks and bring new innovative ideas to areas that can foster economic growth. Also, as many developing countries face an aging population and skill gaps in industries that are fundamental to their economy, an influx of working-age migrants, given the right support, creates a huge opportunity for host countries to fill these shortages. Furthermore, migrants take huge risks to succeed within a new society and as such are hugely resilient when communities face hardship and can be the cornerstone that holds them up. But, the benefits of migration are not just seen by host countries. Remittances sent back to migrants’ home countries have been seen to aid development in low-income countries. They reduce insecurity for the family and offer opportunities to foster long term investments that can improve the standard of living for the whole community. Further, the transfer of knowledge and skill back to home countries can be of huge value.


It is important to note the generosity of countries such as Germany and Colombia who have welcomed those in need of a safe place to call home and thrive. It is vital to focus more on the positive aspects that migrants bring to our lives and acknowledge just how integral they are throughout all societies. IOM points out quite aptly that though migrants are often scapegoated for the ills in society, we need to remind them of the reality. When well-managed migration works and political tensions fade away[7]. All over the world, where people have migrants as neighbours, they become more open to diverse ways of thinking, perceptions are changed and fear is turned into a friendship. There is a desperate need to call the global community to recognise the solutions that migration offers. To call prejudiced governments to account for scaremongering against migrants. International Migrants Day highlights our collective responsibility to create a better world for all but in particular how migrants contribute to that and hence why they need our collective protection.


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