Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

Most Conventional Wisdom About Refugees and Immigration Is Wrong

These interactive charts dispute most of what we hear about our borders.

Most Conventional Wisdom About Refugees and Immigration Is Wrong

Photo: Nicolas Economou via Shutterstock

The world is undergoing mass migration. Our borders are under incredible, unprecedented pressure. The refugee crisis may change Europe forever. If you look at the world’s migration figures, you’ll find that none of these statements are true. The actual number of global migrants is just a half percent of the world population, or 36.5 million people.

That’s still a big number, but it’s certainly not the global meltdown you’ll hear about if you listen to the news in xenophobic, close-bordered Britain, or in Germany, whose border is thought of as an open floodgate for a river of refugees from Syria and other southern and eastern countries. In reality, things aren’t much different today than they’ve ever been.

"The truth," social statistician Guy Abel told Der Spiegel, "is that the global migration dynamic has remained constant at a low level for more than half a century."

Abel works at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography in the Vienna University of Economics and Business, and you can see his charts here. Abel arrived at his figures, after changing the way that migrants are counted. His full study has just been published in the journal Science.

Generally, we count a migrant as a person living in a country other than that in which they were born. A Canadian in the U.S. would be a migrant. I haven’t lived in the U.K. for years, but because I was born there and live elsewhere, I’m a migrant. Using the UN numbers, there were 244 million migrants in 2015, up 41% compared to 2000—but these totals are cumulative.

Abel says that the numbers are also skewed because they don’t take into account the global population increase. For instance, if the number of migrants didn’t change (if nobody moved out of their native country), then the percentage should go down over time, because there are 1.2 billion more people in the world than there were in 2000. The 244 million figure also counts anyone who ever migrated, making it a pretty useless number for gauging the flow of people today.

Finally, the UN figures are compiled from many data sources, all of which come from different countries, and are gathered using differing methods. That is, they're only telling one part of the story.

Abel, along with his colleagues Nikola Sander and Ramon Bauer, have instead charted migration flows. When you look at the charts, you have to remember that they only chart migration. That is, they only apply to the 0.5% of the population that is actually on the move. Really, the best way to understand migration over the long term is to hear to the team’s Global Migration site, where you can view interactive charts that shift to show the changing patterns from 1990 until 2010.

What about the U.S.? Migration into the United States is dropping, from 9.4 million in 1995-2010, to 8.8 million in 200-2005, to 8 million in 2005-2010. In fact, the only immigration paths to show any real growth in this time is from Europe to the U.S. (from the U.K., Spain, Italy. and Germany).

Abel’s figures show that the immigration crisis isn’t really that much of a crisis after all. While the events in places like Syria, which are bad enough to make people uproot and leave their lives behind, are individually devastating, as statistics they’re little more than blips. More people migrate within Europe than come to Europe from Africa, for instance. And people don’t really move from the poorest to the richest countries. Instead, the trend is for people to move to a country that is a little better off than where they’re coming from.

But the main argument against the idea of a crisis, and of our border being under assault, is that global migration is actually dropping, a fact that the UN’s cumulative figures can’t show. Here’s what Der Spiegel says about it:

The number of migrating migrants between 2010 and 2015 (36.5 million) is more than 8 million fewer than in the previous five-year period (45 million). The global migration rate reached an historic peak between 1990 and 1995, a time when the Iron Curtain had fallen, Afghanistan had descended into civil war and there was genocide in Rwanda. The 0.5 percent figure for the last five years is the smallest value since 1960.

Abel makes one more point about the speciousness of the statistics. If you only count people moving across borders, then refugees and migrants are counted together. The "digital nomad" wandering the Earth and working over free Wi-Fi is the same as the Syrian forced to leave home to save their family. But it goes the other way, too. There are plenty of refugees who never cross international borders, and so are never counted as migrants. They also, says Abel’s colleague Nikola Sander, don’t get protection as refugees under the Geneva Convention.

If nothing else, this research shows the malleability of numbers and data. Migration, it seems, isn’t nearly as rife as we’re told. Ideally, this information would lead to a focus on the real problem, which is refugees—international or not—who are fleeing for their lives, and discount the ex-pats around the world who are padding the numbers every year. But as long as the UN’s inflated official figures can be exploited for political gain, that’s unlikely to happen.

Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.

The Fast Company Innovation Festival