Migration, globalisation and gender:
Some key lessons

For many, globalisation and migration go hand in hand. A closer look reveals some interesting trends, notably concerning women.

©Reuters/Adnan Abid

Just how significant is international migration in the light of other globalisation developments? One obvious starting point for answering the question is to ask how many of the current world population of 6.7 billion people are international migrants, defined as persons living outside their country of birth.

The latest UN estimates put this at close to 185 million in 2005, or 2.9% of the global population. This can be compared with an equivalent share of 2.2% in 1970. At first sight, these seem rather small numbers, suggesting that international migration is only a bit player in the globalisation saga.

But there is an issue of comparing apples and oranges when one compares the immigrant population stock data with data on, say, trade and GDP which measure imports, exports, annual output and FDI flows. If we were to put the immigrant data on a similar footing, say by relating inflows of working-age immigrants to new additions to the working-age population, the resulting measure would average 30-40% for the OECD area, not so far from the trade-to-GDP ratio of 45% for OECD countries.

It is also important to disaggregate the global migration stock in order to understand better the international migration process. One obvious disaggregation is by level of economic development. All of the growth over the past three decades in the migration propensity among the world’s population has been concentrated on the OECD countries: the share of immigrants in the OECD population almost doubled from just over 4.5% in 1975 to 8.3% in 2005. It is also noteworthy that 45% of immigrants living in OECD countries in 2008 came from other OECD countries.

In sum, while migrants account for only a tiny fraction of the global population, international migration appears to be an important contributor to the working-age population in OECD countries.

It is very helpful to remind ourselves that there is nothing unique about the current increase in international migration. The 19th and early 20th century witnessed the first great wave of globalisation and this was partly fostered by mass migration in a world of unrestricted migratory movements and rapidly declining costs of transportation between Europe and the New World. Immigration into the main European countries was a minor phenomenon during that period. However, this pattern of migratory movements shifted significantly in the half-century after World War II. While some of the main settlement countries (Canada, United States, Australia) continued to attract large inflows of immigrants, Europe became a major destination for migrants, many of whom come from Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Given the growing importance of international migration for the OECD countries, it is important to disaggregate the trend over the past half-century and see how it has been affected by specific factors such as the end of the colonial era, the oil shocks of the 1970s, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, etc. An examination of OECD data on net international migration rates from the mid-1950s onwards, shows that the trend net migration rate for OECD countries with respect to non-OECD countries was approximately 1 person per 1,000 population from 1956 until the early 1970s when the first oil shock arrived. This was the period of the so-called “guest-workers”, but the OECD net migration rate was relatively stable over this period, although with a number of peaks and troughs.

click here for larger graph

Since the first oil crisis, however, the net migration rate within the OECD has been increasing, with international migration contributing more and more to population growth, compared to natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) with each passing year. The increases in international migration during the 1990s, therefore, would appear to be part of an underlying trend that dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Over the period considered, net migration from outside the OECD to OECD countries averaged 790,000 persons per year from 1956 to 1976, 1.24 million per year from 1977 to 1990 and 2.73 million per year thereafter up to 2005.

Emigration countries show a more or less steady increase over the period in the net migration rate which was perturbed in the mid-1970s, mainly by the returns to Portugal from its former colonies in Africa. It is striking that the trend increase in net immigration to the emigration countries over the 1956-2003 period has accelerated since the turn of the century, to the point where the net migration rate of former emigration countries now equals that of traditional immigration countries.

Currently, family migration is the dominant motive among inflows of permanent immigrants to OECD countries, accounting on average for around 44% of inflows. Labour migration has been on the rise in recent years, but is still in the minority, accounting for almost one in seven of permanent immigrants. Persons moving in the context of free movement regimes represent fully 28% of all immigrants. Humanitarian migration accounts for most of the rest, and it has been declining in recent years. Two other trends in migration have attracted much attention recently: (i) the growing feminisation of migration flows; and (ii) the increased selectivity of migration towards the highly skilled. Firstly, for the world as a whole, the share of women among immigrants has risen slowly from 47% in the early 1960s to almost 50% in 2005.

Secondly, a more surprising result, given that women still face an unequal access to tertiary education in many less developed countries, is that the brain drain is stronger for highly educated women. This latter finding gives a new twist to long-standing concerns about the brain drain given the key role played by women in human capital development. Estimates in a recent paper this writer co-authored show a negative impact of emigration of highly skilled women on three key education and health indicators in developing countries: infant mortality, under-five mortality and secondary school enrolment rates (see reference Dumont, Martin and Spielvogel 2007). These results raise concerns about the potential impact of the female brain drain on the poorest countries.

OECD countries have seen a large increase in immigrants from the rest of the world over the past two decades and this seems unlikely to stop. While it may be imprudent to speculate about the future, it is very likely that population ageing in the OECD area will increase the pressures to allow in more immigrants to help alleviate growing labour shortages in the coming decades and to ease funding pressures on OECD social protection systems.

Note: This is adapted from a paper by John Martin entitled “Migration and the global economy: Some stylised facts”, presented in February 2008. The full paper is available at www.oecd.org/migration. Another longer version has been adapted for Canadian Diversity/Diversité canadienne, Vol 6, No 3, 2008. Permission to reproduce is acknowledged.



  • Dumont, J-C., J.P. Martin and G. Spielvogel (2007), “Women on the Move: the Neglected Gender Dimension of the Brain Drain”, IZA Discussion Paper No 2920, Bonn.

©OECD Observer No 267 May-June 2008

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