Immigration Trends in Major Destination Countries

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International migrants are defined as persons who reside for an extended length of time or indefinitely–possibly permanently–in a foreign country. Tourists, persons who commute daily or weekly to jobs in neighboring countries, and persons employed for a short period outside their country of origin are not considered international migrants.

The minimum stay necessary for a person to be considered an international migrant differs from country to country. Official migration statistics in Germany include foreign citizens who have resided in that country for at least three months. In contrast, in Switzerland only persons who have stayed in the country for a minimum of twelve months are considered migrants. Students and temporary workers can reside for many years in the United States without being officially registered as immigrants. Unlike European censuses, U.S. censuses include data on undocumented persons who have not been granted legal residence. Inadequacies in official statistical data in many developing countries make it impossible to specify the exact number of international migrants worldwide. But commonly cited estimates for the end of the twentieth century are between 120 and 175 million people.

Historical Survey

Migration has taken place throughout history but did not become a mass phenomenon until the industrial revolution. A prerequisite to this development was the emergence of demand for industrial labor. A second prerequisite was the development of widely available and relatively inexpensive means of transportation, particularly railroads and steamships. Improved public transportation allowed large numbers of people to become mobile. This led to considerable intra-European migration and later to the recruitment of migrant workers from abroad to the metropolises and industrial centers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Starting as early as the 1840s, France was the first European country to recruit foreign workers; other Western European countries did not follow its example until the mid-twentieth century.

Starting in the European age of discovery and conquest, Europe became a continent of emigration. Between 1600 and 1950, approximately 70 million people left that continent for destinations overseas. In particular, they aimed to reach North and South America, Algeria, southern Africa, Palestine, Australia, and New Zealand. Most of these emigrants were political and religious dissidents, adventurers, and above all the poor and persons without property. As early as the nineteenth century Europeans began to outnumber the indigenous people in many settlement countries.

In some respects this movement prefigured modern labor migration. It included not only migration from Europe to North and South America but also the recruitment of laborers from India and China as plantation workers in British and Dutch possessions in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Chinese laborers were recruited to work on railroad construction and as lumberjacks in the western United States and Canada. Earlier, the slave trade had brought approximately 9.5 million people–mostly residents of sub-Saharan Africa–to North and South America between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Immigrants in the Twentieth Century

Twentieth-century immigrants to the major settlement countries can be broadly categorized as refugees and expellees, migrants from former colonies, economic migrants, and "ethnically privileged" migrants.

Refugees and Expellees. In the twentieth century in Europe alone, approximately 45 million persons migrated internationally as refugees or through forced deportations. The causes of their relocation included, for example, the Russian Revolution of 1917 (1.5 million refugees), the Turkish-Greek war of 1922 (2 million forced migrants), the policies of Nazi Germany (6 million deported persons and 8.5 million forced laborers), and the new political order that followed World War II (12 million forced German migrants and 2.5 million forced Polish and Ukrainian migrants).

During the Cold War migrants from communist-ruled countries were granted asylum as political refugees in the West, although economic reasons were the primary motive for many of those migrants. Since the 1990s the proportion of asylum seekers granted permanent residence in Western Europe, the United States, and Australia has fallen markedly. Most of the world's refugees (estimated at some 15 million in 2001) are in developing countries, usually in geographic vicinity to their countries of origin.

Postcolonial migrants. Beginning in the 1950s and as a result of decolonization, many colonial settlers, government employees, and soldiers returned to the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and, in 1974–1975, Portugal. The 1990s witnessed the return migration of an estimated 5 million ethnic Russians from Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Baltic region to Russia. Ultimately, this movement too was a result of a decolonization process.

Also since the 1950s, indigenous peoples from former colonial territories in southern and southeastern Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean have migrated to the European countries that had colonized them in search of better living conditions and to escape political and ethnic conflict. This type of migration was fostered by the demand for low-cost labor in Europe.

The European metropolitan powers originally facilitated this migration by recognizing the inhabitants of former colonies as their own citizens or as preferred immigrants. The result was a substantial movement of Irish, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and West Indians to the United Kingdom; Vietnamese and northern and western Africans to France; and Moluccans and Surinamis to the Netherlands.

Economic migrants. In the United States the active recruitment of workers that had begun with Chinese laborers continued with the recruitment of other temporary labor migrants, predominantly from Mexico. Between 1942 and 1964 Mexican workers were recruited through so-called Bracero programs. In contrast to regular migrants, these temporary workers were not seen as candidates for permanent U.S. residency. After 1964 large numbers of undocumented migrants arrived in the United States, mostly from Mexico and South America. Many of them became legal residents between 1986 and 1989. However, the 2000 U.S. census revealed that there were some 8 million undocumented migrants, mostly labor migrants, living in the United States. As legal immigrants to the United States and Canada have immediate access to the labor markets of these countries, regular migration to North America is also largely driven by economic motives.

In Europe, France and Switzerland have the longest history of recruiting foreign workers; in the case of France this practice dates back to the nineteenth century. In the mid-1950s other West European countries started recruiting foreign workers to do low-skilled jobs. Those labor migrants came from Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece and later from North Africa, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. Bilateral treaties between origin and destination countries provided a formal regulatory framework for those flows. Employment of migrant workers in Western Europe reached a high in the early 1970s.

After the first international oil crisis in 1973, state recruitment of workers was halted and quotas were placed on immigration from former colonial territories to Western Europe. Family unification and network migration to Western Europe resulted in continued inflows of persons from countries that previously had supplied migrant labor.

The internationalization of the European labor market in the second half of the twentieth century brought over 30 million people to Western Europe and brought persons residing in Western Europe's peripheries–such as Ireland, Portugal, and southern Italy–to its industrial centers and metropolises.


Only in Finland and Greece about one in two migrant workers stayed in Western Europe; the others eventually returned home.

In addition to legal migrant workers Western Europe received a growing number of illegal and undocumented labor migrants. Estimates from around 2000 suggest that there are more than 2 million undocumented migrants in Western and southern Europe. Many of these migrants stay for only a few months, while others manage to establish themselves. In addition, new types of international seasonal work and cross-border commuter labor have evolved, originating in a variety of source countries. The main source areas are Poland, Romania, North Africa, the Middle East, and southern Asia.

Outside Europe and North America labor migration currently occurs from southern and southeastern Asia to the Persian Gulf states and to South Africa from its bordering countries. In southeastern Asia, Malaysia and Singapore attract regional labor migrants. Brazil and Argentina receive regional labor migration from poorer Andean countries.

Ethnically privileged migrants. Several states have special migration programs for persons with the same ethnic or religious origins as the majority population. An example of a country with this migration policy is Israel. All persons who are of Jewish descent or are members of the Jewish faith are allowed to immigrate to Israel (from 1948 to 2001 there were 3 million ethnic and religious immigrants). Since 1950 Germany has granted members of the German ethnic minority in central and eastern Europe the right to immigrate to Germany and obtain German citizenship (from 1950 to 2001 there were 4 million ethnic migrants). In the 1990s Russia allowed the immigration of citizens from the successor states of the former Soviet Union (from 1990 to 2000 there were 5 million migrants); most of those migrants were ethnic Russians.

Foreign-Born and Foreign Citizens in Major Destination Countries

The most popular geographic destination of migrants is North America, followed by Western Europe, Australia, and the Persian Gulf States.

In the United States, Canada, and Australia, national censuses include statistics on the immigrant population (Table 1). The United States was home to 10 million immigrants in 1950–6.9 percent of the total population–after a long period of restrictive migration policies. By 1970 the proportion of the foreign-born had dropped to 4.7 percent. In subsequent years it increased steadily, reaching 10 percent, or 29 million immigrants, in 2000.

In Canada the share of the immigrant population hardly changed during the second half of the twentieth century, staying at around 17 percent; the absolute numbers increased significantly. In 1950 Canada had 2.1 million immigrants; in 1980, 3.3 million; and in 1996, 5 million. At the beginning of the twenty-first century a total of 34 million foreignborn people lived in North America.

In 2000 the foreign-born population in Australia was 4.3 million, amounting to 23.3 percent of the total population.

In Europe official statistics contain information only about foreign citizens with legal residency and


do not include information on all persons who were born abroad (i.e., migrants). In most Western European countries the number of foreign citizens increased from the 1950s to the 1970s and increased again in the 1990s. This was due only in part to an actual increase in the number of new immigrants. For example, Western European countries that naturalize immigrants rapidly are home to fewer legal foreign residents than are countries with lower naturalization rates. Many European countries do not grant citizenship to native-born children with noncitizen parents. This increases the official number of foreigners living in those countries.

In 1950 fifteen European Union countries were home to 3.8 million foreign citizens (Table 2). By 1970–1971 that number had risen to almost 11 million. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, approximately 20 million foreign citizens lived in those European countries. Additionally, 8 million people–either citizens of European countries returning from stays abroad or former immigrants who had become naturalized–were living in Western Europe.

France was home to the largest foreign citizen population in 1950. In 1970 Germany hosted the largest number of foreign citizens in Europe, followed by France, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. Foreign citizens residing in Europe were predominantly labor migrants.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, Germany was still home to the greatest number of foreign citizens, with 7.3 million people (8.9% of the total population), followed by France with 3.3 million people(5.6%), the United Kingdom with 2.3 million people (3.9%), and Switzerland with 1.5 million people (20.1%).

Other important countries of destination in 2000–2001 were Italy with 1.3 million people(2.2%), Belgium with 0.9 million people (8.3%), Spain with 0.8 million people (2.0%), Austria with 0.7 million people (9.1%), and the Netherlands with 0.7 million people (4.1%).

As a proportion of the total population, foreign citizens were most strongly represented in 1950 and in 2000–2001 in the small countries of Liechtenstein (34.3% in 2000) and Luxembourg (35.6% in 2000). Among larger Western European countries, Switzerland had the highest percent of foreign nationals(20.1% in 2001). All other Western European countries had a foreign citizen population that was under 10 percent of the total population in 2000. Thus, among the 390 million people living in those eighteen European states, only a little over 5 percent were not citizens of the countries in which they resided; one-third of these persons came from other countries of Western Europe. If one includes the number of naturalized citizens living in Western Europe, 7 percent of the persons residing in Western Europe at the beginning of the twenty-first century were immigrants.

See also: International Migration; Labor Migration, International; Trans-Atlantic Migration.


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Straubhaar, Thomas. 2002. "Migration im 21. Jahrhundert." Beiträge zur Ordnungstheorie und Ordnungspolitik. Vol. 167. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck Verlag.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2000. The State of the World's Refugees: Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. Geneva: UNHCR, New York: Oxford University Press.

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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2003. <>.

Rainer MÜnz

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Immigration Trends in Major Destination Countries

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Immigration Trends in Major Destination Countries