World Migration Tops 120 Million, Says ILO

67 countries are now major receivers of immigrants

Released simultaneously in Geneva, London and Washington, D.C.

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Peter Stalker, author of the book, Workers without Frontiers, is available for telephone interviews on Wednesday, March 1st. Please call 703-820-2244 to schedule an interview.


Far from reducing international migration flows — by moving products instead of people — globalization will give rise to increased migration pressures in the years ahead, says a new book published by the International Labour Office (ILO).

The book, Workers without Frontiers — The Impact of Globalization on International Migration , argues that flows of goods and capital between rich and poor countries will not be large enough to offset the needs for employment in poorer countries. Instead the social disruption caused by economic restructuring is likely to shake more people loose from their communities and encourage them to look abroad for work.

The total number of migrants around the world now surpasses 120 million — up from 75 million in 1965 — and continues to grow.

“In a world of winners and losers, the losers do not simply disappear, they seek somewhere else to go”, says the book’s author, Peter Stalker.

The ability to find good jobs and earn much higher pay is the prime reason people are emigrating today:

  • A 1996 survey of 496 undocumented Mexicans in the United States found that they earned an average of US$31 per week in their last Mexican job compared to US$278 per week in the United States, an earnings ratio of 9:1
  • In 1997, Indonesian labourers earned US$0.28 per day in their country versus US$2 or more per day in neighbouring Malaysia;
  • In 1995, hourly labour costs in manufacturing stood at US$ 0.25 in India and China, US$ 0.46 in Thailand, US$ 0.60 in Russia, US$ 1.70 in Hungary and US$ 2.09 in Poland against US$ 13.77 in the United Kingdom, US$ 14.40 in Australia, US$ 16.03 in Canada, US$ 17.20 in the United States, US$ 19.34 in France, US$ 23.66 in Japan and US$ 31.88 in Germany according to a study** quoted by the author.

The book finds that falling prices for transportation and the increased speed of communication have changed the character of international migration, making it much less a permanent move. By 1990, air transport costs per mile had dropped to 20% of their 1930 level. Between 1930 and 1996, the cost of a three-minute telephone conversation between London and New York fell from US$300 to US$1.

“These changes have made departures to unknown lands less daunting and traumatic,” Stalker says. “Migration flows, as a result, have become more complex and diverse.”

One major shift is that many more countries have become suppliers, receivers or both of these international labour migrants. An ILO analysis of current migration patterns in 152 countries showed that between 1970 and 1990, the numbers of countries classified as major receivers of labour immigrants rose from 39 to 67. Over the same 20 years, the number of countries designated as major international labour suppliers rose from 29 to 55.

As a sign of the increasing complexity of migration patterns, the number of countries that functioned as both major senders and receivers of migrants rose over the same period from four to 15.

Stalker points out that migration flows are “distorted by social and political pressures as host communities become more resistant to new arrivals.” Governments that do little to interfere with flows of trade and finance “take much more resolute action when it comes to people,” he says. This has little impact on the overall number of migrants worldwide, but it does affect migration patterns. It has also favoured the emergence of a commercial “migration industry” helping migrants, for a fee, to secure visas, transportation and employment. And it has spurred the growth of illegal trafficking.

“In Europe in 1993, some 15-30% of undocumented immigrants were thought to have used the services of traffickers,” the book says. “In the case of asylum applications, the proportion is even higher: 20-40%.”

As an enterprise, trafficking is highly lucrative. Smuggling someone by car across an Eastern European border or by boat from Morocco to Spain might be worth US$500, but a sophisticated travel package for an undocumented migrant from China to the United States can cost up to US$30,000. The book quotes a study which estimates that the trafficking in undocumented migrants brings in from US$5 billion to US$7 billion per year.

“This illegal flow of workers has created a large market for forged documents”, says the book, adding that Bangkok “has developed into a major production centre” for forged documents, mainly Korean and Japanese passports — worth about US$ 2,000 apiece — used by Chinese emigrants to travel on to other parts of the World.

“Many people also lubricate the flow of migrants by offering financing”, Stalker points out. Some are long-term loans to be paid off over years. But short-term financing is also available. Bolivian peasants who wish to enter Argentina as tourists must show to immigration officials the equivalent of US$ 1,500 in spending money. This, says Stalker “has created a new form of financial intermediary, demanding what must be a world record interest rate. For the hour or so it takes to cross the border, bus companies and others will lend migrants the necessary cash — for a 10% fee”.

As always, differences in living standards explain the direction of migration flows. In terms of GDP per capita, the ratio between the United States and Mexico, for example, is 6 to 1. Between Germany and Poland, it is 11 to 1, Stalker says.

A more realistic indicator of the potential for migration is the difference in wage rates for occupations that are open to immigrants. These vary considerably from country to country, though immigrants tend almost everywhere to be highly concentrated in certain sectors.

“In the United States, the sector in which the share of immigrants is highest is agriculture,” the book says. “In Belgium and the Netherlands, it is the extraction and processing of minerals; in Denmark, Germany, Australia and Canada, it is manufacturing; in France and Luxembourg, it is construction and civil engineering; in the United Kingdom, it is services.”

When a free and rapid exchange of information across national borders exists, such as between Mexico and the United States, migrant workers can be very sensitive to changes in the labour market. A US study, by the Public Policy Institute of California, found that when California’s economy boomed in the mid to late 1980s, the state experienced brisk job growth and undocumented immigration peaked. On the other hand, when California suffered from a severe recession in the early 1990s, undocumented immigration fell.

Migration is also affected by conditions in the sending country. When the Mexican economy is in crisis, undocumented migration rises. One study concluded that a 10% decrease in real wages in Mexico is associated with an 8% increase in apprehensions of undocumented workers at the border.

The world has seen larger-scale migrations in previous eras — the slave trade and the European migration to the New World and Australia are cited as two examples in the book.

The most brutal transfers of people from one country to another resulted from the slave trade. Prior to 1850, an estimated 15 million slaves were transported from Africa to the Americas, and during the century following the abolition of slavery, more than 30 million people were moved as indentured workers.

Millions more also travelled voluntarily. Between 1846 and 1939, some 59 million people left Europe, with most heading to the Americas, while others went to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

While many people are concerned about what they perceive as burgeoning international migration, the largest flows historically occurred in the 100 years after 1815. The peak year for immigration into the United States occurred in 1915, when 1.2 million immigrants arrived, equivalent to 1.2% of the total American population at that time. In 1996, the U.S. received 996,000 immigrants, which came to just 0.35% of the population.

What is new is the truly global nature of the phenomenon.

United States — Studies quoted by the author highlight the fact that the jobs held by recent immigrants are significantly more exposed to foreign competition than those held by nationals. Mexican immigrants, says the book, are overrepresented in economic sectors – such as agriculture and garments — “that are at greatest risk from import penetration”. Indeed, “many of the industries that have demanded protection from foreign competition are also those that employ large numbers of immigrants”. In 1991, the US Department of Labor estimated that “73% of all workers employed in U.S. crop production were foreign-born”.

Latin America — While most migrants head northward to the United States, there exist other, slower flows to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. An estimated 200,000 undocumented migrants from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru live and work in Argentina, for example. Mexico draws in Central Americans, many of them on their way further North.

Western Europe — Germany acted as a magnet in the years following the collapse of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the years 1988-1994, net immigration into both parts of Germany totalled 4 million, of whom 2 million ethnic Germans from the former Soviet Union.

Former Soviet Union — More than 9 million former Soviet citizens moved following the collapse of the communist regime. Among them were many ethnic Russians who found themselves unwelcome in what had become new republics: some 2.7 million moved to Russia between 1993 and 1996. Others moved in search of work. There were 350,000 legal foreign workers in Russia in 1996 and 400,000 undocumented foreigners are thought to be living in Moscow alone.

Persian Gulf — The oil price rise after 1973 triggered an explosion in the demand for labour, particularly in construction. Between 1975 and 1990, the number of immigrants in the seven States of the Gulf Cooperation Council, rose from 1.1 million to 5.2 million, representing 68% of the labour force. Millions however had to leave as a result of the Gulf war in 1990-91. Many have since then returned. In spite of statements to the contrary, States in the region remain as dependent as ever on foreign workers. “In Kuwait in 1996, of a total labour force of 1.1 million, only 176,000 were Kuwaiti citizens”.

East and Southeast Asia — In Japan, labour shortages became so acute in the late 1980s that numerous immigrants were allowed in temporarily, on short-term contracts. The number of registered foreign residents ballooned as a result, reaching 1.36 million in 1995 — nearly 1.1% of the population. In addition, some 300,000 persons who entered the country as tourists are thought to have overstayed their visas.

The newly industrialized economies (NIEs) of Singapore, Hong Kong (China), the Republic of Korea and Taiwan (China) have all attracted large contingents of unskilled workers even as they try to control the inflow. Singapore has the tightest system, imposing severe sanctions on employers of illegal immigrants. “But even here”, says the book, “there are reports of increasing numbers of undocumented workers”.

Countries of the next generation of NIEs, such as Thailand and Malaysia, are both sources and destinations for migrant workers. In 1997, before the economic crisis, Thailand was host to 600,000 migrants, but also had 372,000 Thai workers spread around Asia. Indonesia exports unskilled labour to the Middle East, Malaysia and Singapore and imports skilled workers, mostly from India and the Philippines. “By the middle of 1997 there were thought to be over 6.5 million foreign workers in seven Asian countries or areas: Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong (China), and Taiwan (China)”.

In a number of Asian countries the majority of emigrants today are women, generally working as domestic servants in the Middle-East, Singapore and Hong Kong (China). This is the case for 69% of migrants from Sri Lanka, 65% from Indonesia and 55% from Thailand.

Africa — Flows of undocumented immigrants into South Africa “have increased markedly in the postapartheid era”. Their precise numbers are a matter of controversy with estimates ranging from 3 to 8 million, most of whom come from neighbouring Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Lesotho.

Category: Press Release