Myths of Migration

Much of What We Think We Know Is Wrong

The debate over migration is plagued by a variety of inaccuracies and misunderstandings — on both the right and the left. Here is what the research really shows.

By Hein de Haas

I copy here just part 8 of a very long article by Hein de Haas. This section brings the article to a conclusion. Of course this is written from a EU perspective, but would probably apply to other developed countries as well.

8. No, we aren’t living in an era of unprecedented migration.

And finally, a look at the broader picture. For over half a century, the number of migrants as a percentage of the world population has remained remarkably constant at levels of roughly 3 percent since 1960. Even as the number of international migrants has increased from 93 million in 1960 to 244 million in 2015, the global population has increased at approximately the same rate, from 3 billion to almost 7.3 billion.


The idea of a global “refugee crisis” likewise has no basis in fact. On a global scale, refugees represent a relatively small share of all migrants. While the number of refugees decreased from 18.5 million to 16.3 million between 1990 and 2010, the total rebounded to 21.3 million in 2016, primarily as a result of war in Syria. Still, refugees only represent between 7 and 8 percent of the global migrant population, and about 86 percent of all refugees live in developing countries.

Countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan currently host the largest refugee populations. Western societies, by contrast, receive a comparatively low number of refugees, and current numbers are anything but unprecedented. Currently, about 0.4 percent of the total EU population is a refugee. That figure hovered around 0.5 percent between 1992 and 1995.

The main change in global migration patterns has been the dominant direction of population movements. Whereas in past centuries, it was mainly Europeans who migrated to foreign territories (or conquered them), this pattern has been reversed since World War II.

With its strong economy and aging population, the EU has emerged as a global migration destination, attracting between 1.5 and 2.5 million non-EU migrants per year. Although this sounds significant, it corresponds to between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of the EU’s total population of 508 million.

Furthermore, between 1 million and 1.5 million people leave the EU every year. Net migration in European countries like France and Germany tends to fluctuate, as illustrated above, in parallel to business cycles, but the long-term trend does not show an increase.

There is an urgent need to see migration as an intrinsic part of economic growth and societal change instead of primarily as a problem that must be solved. It is inevitable that open and wealthy societies will experience substantial immigration in the future as well, whether they like it or not.

This exposes one of the paradoxes of liberalization: The political desire for less migration is fundamentally incompatible with the trend towards economic liberalization and the desire to maximize economic growth. The erosion of labor rights, the rise of flexible work and the privatization of formerly state-owned companies in recent decades have significantly increased the demand for migrant labor in Europe. The heated migration debates in Britain and the U.S. – both strongly liberalized market economies facing persistently high levels of immigration – are powerful illustrations of this liberalization paradox.

As such, the only way to really cut down on immigration seems that of reversing economic liberalization and strictly regulating labor markets. That, though, could also decrease levels of wealth across the board. The question then becomes: Is that really what we want?


Hein de Haas is a professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. He was a founding member and former co-director of the International Migration Institute (IMI) at the University of Oxford. For more information on research findings underpinning this article, see and

4 thoughts on “Myths of Migration

  1. And Australia is even less being ‘swamped’ by refugees. A good article and should be obligatory reading by all those people ramping up the idea that our borders are under threat.

    1. I find all the data most interesting, Stuart. For instance:

      “Even as the number of international migrants has increased from 93 million in 1960 to 244 million in 2015, the global population has increased at approximately the same rate, from 3 billion to almost 7.3 billion.”
      So, an increase in global population from 3 billion to almost 7.3 billion.

      This to me is a frightening picture. How can the earth be there for everybody if there is a doubling of population every fifty years or sooner?
      A doubling of population should take much, much longer. Then perhaps we could cope with it. As far as I know in the not so distant past it took very much longer for a doubling of the population!

      It says in that article that the “refugee” crisis has no basis in fact. What about Syria and the neighbouring countries? So, Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan currently host the largest refugee population? I reckon for these countries it is definitely a crisis.

      And the people that flee from Africa because of drought or war, is that then classed as just a normal movement of populations? I guess movements like these may have always taken place.. But it seems to me the actual numbers of African people who move for one reason or another are unprecedented. Plus the weapons that are being used these days for attacks or domination are unprecedented too, are they not?

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