2014-03-27

Visualizing Which Countries People Are Trying To Get Away From, And Where They're Going

A new tool combines country-level and census data to reveal how people move across the planet.

The patterns of human migrations around the world are fascinating to think about. Global movements reflect current events—whether war and strife, or economic opportunity and technological improvement—and these patterns also slowly reshape nations themselves.

That’s why it’s worth taking a few minutes to play around with this new interactive graphic of global migration patterns. In an unprecedented amount of detail, the graphic captures the movements in and out of 196 countries over the last 20 years (see here for the interactive version).

Built with software normally used in the field of genetics, the visualization accompanies a new analysis published in the journal Science today that provides the most detailed look at migration patterns yet.

Circular plot of migration flows of at least 170,000 people between and within world regions during 2005 to 2010. Tick marks show the number of migrants (inflows and outflows) in millions. Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of Abel et al., Science/AAAS.

The authors, from the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Human Capital in Vienna, combined country-level data and new census data from the United Nations to tease out how people moved between countries at five-year intervals. Previously these kinds of statistics were hard to capture.

The data disprove some misconceptions about global migrations. For example, many people—including scholars—believe that the number of people who leave their country of birth has been on the rise. But this proves untrue, according to the data. In fact, the percentage of the world’s population picking up their roots to cross borders has actually held quite steady at around 0.6% of the world’s population.

A circular migration plot showing flows of at least 60,000 immigrants between 60 countries from 2005 to 2010. Tick marks indicate the number of migrants in 100,000s. Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of Abel et al., Science/AAAS.

Playing around with the graphic, I put on my amateur demographer hat and investigated some trends. For example, I know both after the two elections of President George W. Bush and President Obama’s first election many opponents threatened to move to Canada. It appears few followed up: Between 2000 and 2010, only about 180,000 people made that move, the graphic shows. I’ve always been interested in Rwanda’s history so I checked out the flows from there. As expected, zero people immigrated to Rwanda between 1990 and 1995, while 1.5 million people left the tiny country. Those were the years of and leading up to the 1994 genocide. But since, the country has stabilized and put the past largely behind it. Between 2005 and 2010, 56,000 people moved to Rwanda, while only 36,000 left—reflecting that recovery.

In their own far more professional analysis, the authors go over some new trends uncovered in their data. They show that the largest flows of people are happening between South and West Asia, from Latin America to North America, and within Africa.

More broadly, they observe that while most migration happens within connected countries in the same region, there are many smaller long-distance flows—almost always from poorer countries to richer countries. It’s interesting to think about, given the exploding population in many developing nations today (according to the graphic, 6.5 million people left Africa from 2005 to 2010, with the largest portion headed to the United States). “These long-distance flows are effective at redistributing population to countries with higher income levels, whereas return flows are negligible,” they write.

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