The refugee debate creates the impression of unprecedented mass migration. That image is completely incorrect. The real question, when we look at migration globally, is why there is so little of it.
Take a tape measure. Unroll the tape to about two meters (six feet) and place one end against a wall. The distance between you and the wall corresponds to the world population of about 7.3 billion people. The number of people worldwide who left their native countries in the last five years -- in other words, migrated -- takes up about one centimeter (three-eighths of an inch) of the tape measure. That number amounted to 36.5 million, or 0.5 percent of the world's population. All others, or 99.5 percent of the global population, are non-migrants, or people who were living in the same country in 2015 as in 2010. They represent the other 199 centimeters on the tape measure.
Those who are unfamiliar with the true scale may perhaps see "waves" of immigrants rolling in or an "onslaught" about to take place. They see entire nations unpacking their things to set up house in Europe and Germany, provided they survive the journey. One shouldn't make the mistake of thinking that the entire world is on the move. It merely depicts the movements of the 0.5 percent of the world population that became international migrants in the last five years. All others, the 99.5 percent, have not moved at all.
The share of the global volume of migration that affects Europe is only a fraction of the whole. Just to be clear, a fraction of a small fraction of a very small fraction can still be a big number. We don't care how many or how few of them there are because each of them is seeking a better life. There are always real people behind the numbers, percentages and tenths of percentages.
Just how many people are actually on the move? And how many are going from where to where? Is it true that the numbers are constantly growing? Or are they in fact declining? Who actually counts the migrants? Who is considered a migrant and who a refugee? And are the numbers we constantly read and hear about figures that actually make sense?
"The truth is that the global migration dynamic has remained constant at a low level for more than half a century," explained Guy J. Abel, a social statistician and population researcher at the Wittgenstein Center for Demography in Vienna.
The basic problem, Abel explains, is that all migration figures come from the United Nations, which measures migration by combining the numbers of migrants and refugees from all countries. The UN defines migrants as "persons living in a country other than where they were born." The data are derived from individual countries' censuses and refugee registries.
In a recent press release, the UN announced the latest total number as follows: "The number of international migrants -- reached 244 million in 2015 for the world as a whole, an increase of 71 million, or 41 percent, compared to 2000."
244,000,000: What a huge number! 41 percent -- an increase of almost half!
First, let's take a look at the 41 percent increase. It relates to absolute numbers, which are not reasonable benchmarks here. In 2000, the UN counted 173 million migrants. That was 2.8 percent of the global population of 6.1 billion at the time. Since then, the world population has grown to 7.3 billion, so that the 244 million migrants in 2015 make up 3.3 percent of that total.
So why doesn't the UN communicate the information as follows: "Since the year 2000, the share of migrants in the world population grew by 0.5 percentage points?" Because it sounds less concerning?
Here's the situation. The UN doesn't receive enough money. Its World Food Program, for example, is radically underfunded, as are its aid campaigns for Syria. Coming from this position of need, the UN always turns up the volume when announcing its figures. Dependent as it is on money from its members to relieve its distress, the UN underpins its appeals with dramatic terms like "all-time high," "new maximum" and "record low." By doing so, it contributes significantly to the imbalance in the migration debate.
But the bigger problem lies in the number itself, 244 million. Why?
"The figure has several serious weaknesses," says Abel, and yet it is spread around the globe by hundreds of media organizations, press agencies, NGOs, politicians and even academics. Numbers like these, or their international equivalents, from which they are derived, serve as the basis for debates, studies and laws. Why? Because there is no more credible source than the UN. This widespread perception leads to phrases like these: "The world has 41 percent more migrants now than in 2000, UN reports" (Toronto Star). "UN: Number of global migrants soars to 244 million" (Newsweek). Or, conversely and especially distorting, on the website of Swiss television: "Fewer and fewer people are living in their native countries."
The number, 244 million, isn't incorrect. It just says very little about all the things you would want to know when you think about migration.
For one thing, according to the UN's definition, the 244 million correspond to the total aggregated migrant stock in the world. This means that anyone who ever left their country of birth and is still alive is part of this number. It includes the man who runs the nearest kebab shop, who has been in Germany for 20 years. It includes the Indian professor of nuclear physics, who took a job at a German university in Göttingen in the 1980s. It includes the Swedish designer who has lived in Berlin since the mid-1990s. It includes Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola. The Klitschko boxing champions. And many other examples. It even includes the author of this article, who was born in Switzerland. Are these the people you imagine when you think of migration?
According to Abel, "244 million is a number that says nothing about how many people migrated from which country to which country, and when."
The situation is further complicated by mismatched data sets. Most countries do not compile detailed migration statistics. The UN figures include many assumptions and estimates, because the survey methods of the 200 countries included are highly variable -- and differ greatly in terms of reliability. Still, they are the best numbers we have. Whereas the UN measures migrant stocks, Abel estimates migrant flows over certain periods of time. A flow corresponds to the migration of at least one person to another country in a five-year time period. In other words, Abel uses UN and World Bank figures to detect changes in the total migrant stocks of about 200 countries every five years since 1960. Using algorithms, he calculates the minimum amount of migrant flows that must have taken place between all of these countries every five years to reflect the changes in migrant stocks. Let's assume we know how many foreign players were playing for all German Bundesliga football clubs in 2010 and 2015, but we don't know how many switched from which team to which team. Guy Abel can figure it out. "It's roughly like that," says Abel. It's complicated, he adds, "but it works."
Nikola Sander also conducts research at the Wittgenstein Center. She points out "The general perception of migration suffers from a Eurocentric worldview. People believe that the entire world wants to go to Europe. But when you look at our graphics, you quickly realize that this isn't true."
The largest global migrant flows take place within individual world regions, not across continents. This is evidenced by the thickest arrows in the chart, which point from Africa to Africa, from the Middle East to the Middle East, and from East Asia to East Asia. The arrows represent the migrations of hundreds of thousands of people from places like India to Dubai or from Syria to Lebanon.
- Significantly more Europeans migrate within Europe than Africans to Europe.
- A much larger number of people migrate within the Middle East than from the Middle East to Europe.
- The largest transcontinental flow continues to move from South to North America, although it has decreased considerably compared to the period from 2005 to 2010.
- North America and Europe remain the most important target regions for international migration, although North America has a significantly smaller out-migration than Europe.
- Europe's share of the total migration volume has declined.
- Migration paths do not lead primarily from very poor to very rich countries, but rather adhere to a graduated model. "People move to countries where the economy is somewhat stronger than in their native country," says Sander. She means from Bangladesh to India or from Zimbabwe to South Africa, for example.
- East and Southeast Asia are developing from typical source regions into target regions of international migration.
- What has changed in the long retrospective view is the general direction of migration: from North-South to South-North and now, increasingly, to South-South. In earlier centuries, it was the Europeans who emigrated or colonized other parts of the world, which is just another form of migration.
- But the most surprising result of Abel's calculations is that overall global migration has been on the decline in the last five years. "Significantly on the decline," says Abel.
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. Which declining flows are behind this decrease, given that Europe is supposedly being "overrun" at the moment? They are simply processes that are much bigger than what we now see at Europe's doorstep. Dubai, for instance, has lost much of its appeal, and migration from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to the economically weakening emirates has shrunk considerably. The same applies to migration to Qatar. In the last five years, migration from East Asia to North America has declined by more than half, from 3.4 to 1.6 million. Even Mexicans, now finding more jobs at home, are no longer as likely to migrate to the United States as they were before 2010. The Spanish economic crisis led to a dramatic decline in labor migration from Latin America and countries like Morocco and Romania: from 2.3 million to 120,000. Migration to and within Europe also declined significantly between the 2005-2010 and 2010-2015 periods, from 11 million to 7 million (although the difference would be less large if the available figures continued until the present).
If we look back further, it becomes apparent that the absolute number of migrant flows has grown continuously since 1960 (with the exception of the last five years). However, the share of migrants in the world population has been virtually constant for more than half a century, consistently hovering around the 0.6 percent mark every five years. "There appears to be a historic rule of thumb," says Abel, "which is that for every five-year period, six out of 1,000 people are on the move." This stability is also apparent even if one does not count those who are currently migrating, but rather all people who have been living outside their native country for any period of time, as the UN does. In that case, migrants have made up about 3 percent of the world population since 1960. This is why people who study migration are not as interested in the problem of growing migration numbers. Instead, they are more likely to address the question of why there is so little migration.
What distinguishes a refugee from a migrant?
One of them migrates voluntarily, while the other is forced to do so. However, the UN migration figures toss both categories into the same pot. Some 15 million of the 244 million UN migrants are refugees. Another problematic number is also quoted very often: 60 million. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) usually refers to 60 million "persons of concern," but this is usually simplified in the debate to mean "60 million refugees."
"This number also needs to be scrutinized more closely," says Sander. About 35 of these 60 million people, or more than half, are internally displaced persons, or refugees in their country: homeless Syrians in Syria, uprooted Afghans in Afghanistan. Their plight is usually no less severe than that of internationally migrating refugees - often it is even more serious. But because they have not crossed a national border, they are not considered refugees under the Geneva Convention. They are the kinds of internally displaced persons the right-wing like, because they remain in their native countries -- often enough to die there. But this doesn't prevent the agitators from exploiting their large numbers, which don't even affect them, for political gain.
The number of refugees in a narrower sense -- namely those who have left their country, fall under the provisions of the Geneva Convention and are entitled to protection as refugees -- is significantly lower. As of mid-2015 (more recent figures do not exist), the UNHCR estimated their number at 15 million worldwide.
Unfortunately, the same thing applies to refugees as to migration as a whole: The UN and aid organizations use threatening language when they announce the relevant figures. For instance, according to an announcement by the UNHCR, the number of displaced person is now at "a level not previously seen in the post-World War II era." This statement was gratefully snapped up by the media around the globe. The relentlessly lurid expression "more than after World War II," inspired by the UNHCR, already makes no sense given that the world's population was only about 2 billion after World War II. If an estimated 60 million people were refugees in Europe alone at the time, it was already 3 percent of the world population -- almost four times as much as today. Why doesn't the UNHCR write: "The share of refugees in the world population today is less than a quarter of what it was in the period after World War II?" Isn't 60 million enough?
The UN needs money and is constantly sounding the alarm. But its dramatizations create more fear than a willingness to help in the individual countries and the public. They also lead the paradoxical situation that actors on the left and right sides of the political spectrum use the same blustering rhetoric to talk about migration. Aid organizations and the left are fueling the fire because they want to inspire pity. Right-wing populists are sounding the same tune because they want to generate fear. It's just the truth that is hard to sell. The truth is it's bad. It's been bad for a long time. It's even been far worse before than it is today. But by no means is it "overwhelming mankind" -- and certainly not Europe. The problem could be overcome, if only the will to do so existed.