How many international #migrants, how many #refugees? It’s (not that) complicated…

..but how many forced migrants? That’s more complicated. There are 2 numbers everybody has in mind when talking about migrants and refugees: 244 million international migrants, and 65 million refugees and other “forcibly displaced persons”. But how do these numbers relate to each other, how do they overlap? That seems to be the source of confusion, as demonstrated by some ambiguity in the New York declaration and even outright mistakes (now corrected by removing all the numbers) in two recent official GFMD documents (i.e. the 2017 concept paper). In this post, written with Evalyn Tennant, Project Development Coordinator of the Global Coalition on Migration, we try to clarify these numbers:

The main question seems to be whether the 65.3 million forcibly displaced are part of the 244 million international migrants. The answer is that some of the 65.3 million are in effect included in the 244 million figure but others are not. All of these numbers are estimates—though at least they are all 2015 estimates. They come from different sources—mainly the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and UNHCR—using different methods and have different purposes.

Some of the confusion stems from the fact that they are all mentioned together in the same paragraph of the New York Declaration:

We are witnessing in today’s world an unprecedented level of human mobility. More people than ever before live in a country other than the one in which they were born. Migrants are present in all countries in the world… In 2015, their number surpassed 244 million, growing at a rate faster than the world’s population. However, there are roughly 65 million forcibly displaced persons, including over 21 million refugees, 3 million asylum seekers and over 40 million internally displaced persons.

Taking the figures in order:

244 million international migrants is DESA’s 2015 figure. DESA defines the category of “international migrant”, and therefore what it is counting, as “persons living in a country other than where they were born.” They can be living there for any reason, having arrived under forced or voluntary circumstances. Although some refugee advocates seen an advantage in asserting that refugees are somehow not migrants, under the definition here, they unequivocally are.

The 65.3 million displaced persons counted by UNHCR break down to:

21.3 million refugees comprising 16.12 million under the UNHCR mandate and 5.2 million Palestinian refugees registered by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), all of whom are by definition outside their country of birth.

3.2 million asylum applicants awaiting decisions, again, by definition outside their country of birth.

40.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), by definition still in their country of birth and thus not to be counted among the 244 million people living outside their country of birth.

So very roughly, 24.5 million of the 244 million are refugees or asylum seekers awaiting decisions, and roughly 220 million are not among those UNHCR counts as “forcibly displaced.”

If it is this straightforward, why is there so much confusion? Because those counted as “forcibly displaced” by UNHCR (mainly those for whom UNHCR has a protection mandate) are far from the only forced migrants or forced international migrants by almost any definition of either of these terms.

According to Forced Migration Review, a leading scholarly and policy journal,

’Forced migration’ refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (displaced by conflict) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.“

The definition – promoted by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) – says nothing about whether those people in the latter category have crossed a border, and forced migration scholars address forced migration both within countries and across borders.

The revised version of the GFMD concept paper asserts that

„Public attention is currently focused on refugees and internally displaced persons; less consideration is being given to the additional international migrants in search of new economic, educational, and social opportunities.”

But the distinction is drawn too starkly, painting all non-refugee international migrants as being merely seekers of opportunity, rather than as people in many cases forced to look beyond their country of origin for decent work and the possibility of a sustainable livelihood. In reality it is clear that those people who cross borders do so for reasons on a continuum between fleeing for their lives and moving entirely on the basis of personal preference and opportunity.

Furthermore, when it comes to where people seek to go, as the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants points out, „It is true that most migrants, including refugees, try to go where there are jobs, where they can start integrating and creating a future for their children. It is also true that prime destination countries have jobs available for migrants in the official or underground labour markets.“ François Crépeau, SR on the Human Rights of Migrants,

Much of the impetus for last year’s 19 September Summit was to address not just refugees but also “vulnerable migrants,” especially those travelling in large movements and/or irregularly—a category that has significant overlap with but is not the same as “forced migrants”.

The Secretary General’s report, “In Safety and Dignity: Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants” states:

  1. Although large movements of refugees and migrants are not a new phenomenon, the images of the past few years have shocked the world’s conscience: rickety boats piled high with people seeking safety; women, men and children drowning in their attempts to escape violence and poverty; fences going up on borders where people used to cross freely; thousands of girls and boys going missing, many falling prey to criminal groups. Unable to find safe ways to move, people suffer and die in search of safety while crossing the Sahara Desert, the Andaman Sea, the Mediterranean, and dozens of other dangerous places around the world. Upon arrival, the rights of those who survive these perilous trips are often violated. Many asylum-seekers and migrants are detained and their reception is sometimes far from welcoming. Xenophobic and racist rhetoric seems not only to be on the rise, but also to be becoming more socially and politically acceptable.

In the context of the Global Compact on Safe, Regularly and Orderly Migration, the Report of the outgoing Special Representative of the Secretary General on Migration, Peter Sutherland, speaks forcefully of the need to address forced migration—its drivers, and the needs of forced migrants:

  1. Forced migration and flows of refugees are perhaps the most difficult challenge to the international community. We have a duty to: (1) address the root causes of forced migration; (2) relieve the terrible suffering of the people forced to leave their homes; and (3) find solutions to their plight. On all three fronts, individual States and the UN have been failing. Last year, 2016, a great deal of energy was devoted to efforts to improve the global response, notably through a series of high-level international meetings.[1] Rightly, the issue of large movements of refugees and migrants is at the top of the current political agenda. But we must not let it blind us to the continued importance of regular, organized migration — whether for work, study, or family reunification .

But despite recognition of the need to address situations that force people to move but are not the persecution addressed by the Refugee Convention, there is no internationally agreed definition of how much and what kinds of force qualify migration as “forced migration,” nor is there likely to be. And if it cannot be defined, it cannot be measured.

Note: Since this is a post about numbers, we would like to point out two more numbers which receive much less attention:

10 million stateless people

763 million internal migrants (persons living within their own country but outside their region of birth)

It has to be noted that migration is very much an urban phenomenon—most internal migration is rural to urban, and international migrants too are concentrated in cities. IOMs 2015 World Migration report provides valuable background on this aspect. Nearly one in five of the world foreign-born population resides in established global gateway cities such as Sydney, London and New York. Every day an estimated 120,000 people are migrating to cities in the Asia-Pacific region – and around the world, three million people are moving to cities every week:

The number of internal migrants a preliminary estimate based on data from 2005. It brings up the question of the 40,8 million IDPs are part of this number. If that is the case one can add 763 and 244 resulting in the number of more than a billion internal and international migrants (however based on datasets that lie 10 years apart).


Some Sources & Resources: has different, slightly lower, figures for 2015 and a much lower stateless figure of ~3.69 million people.

Evalyn Tennant & Stefan Rother


[1] These included: the “Supporting Syria” Syria IV Conference on 4 February; the Solutions Alliance Round Table on 9-10 February 2016; the UNHCR ministerial-level meeting on Pathways for Admission of Syrian Refugees on 30 March 2016; the Wilton Park Conference on new approaches to protracted forced displacement on 4-6 April 2016; the World Humanitarian Summit on 24-25 May 2016; the UN General Assembly’s high-level plenary meeting on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants on 19 September 2016; and the US Leaders’ Summit on Refugees on 20 September 2016.



About Dr. Stefan Rother

Senior Lecturer and Researcher at the Arnold-Bergstraesser-Institute at the University of Freiburg -- Freelance journalist -- You can find my CV at the links below:
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