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The Changing Face of International Migration: Flows Are Increasingly Fluid, Diverse, and Unconventional

The Changing Face of International Migration: Flows Are Increasingly Fluid, Diverse, and Unconventional

After the lull of migration flows during the Great Recession, the engine of labor mobility has restarted—more slowly, but also more smartly. Southern European countries are seemingly reverting to their more traditional role as countries of emigration, as workers leave these crisis-hit areas for the more prosperous north; blossoming markets and emerging economies are pulling in skilled workers from both high-income and other middle-income countries, as well as attracting low-skilled workers from their own neighborhood; and increasing numbers of countries are experimenting with creative methods to woo foreign students and investors. Many of the beneficiaries of these new immigration opportunities have been the growing middle class from China and other emerging economies.

Issue No. 1 of Top Ten of 2013

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Among the traditional countries of immigration, inflows of permanent immigrants are still strong. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States have not slowed their intake of permanent immigrants, and the first three countries in this list have actually accelerated these flows.

Meanwhile, political unrest, symbolized by the protracted conflict in Syria and the plight of its citizens, continues to drive movements of people worldwide. (See Issue No. 4: The Escalating Syrian Refugee Crisis Challenges International Community's Ability to Respond)

Nimble Flows

Many of the new flows of migrants are nimble, reacting swiftly to opportunities and economic conditions, whether positive or negative. For example, emigration of young people from the beleaguered countries of southern Europe and Ireland has rapidly increased in response to the dearth of jobs. In 2012, Ireland's rate of emigration was 7.6 people for every 1,000 (compared to a net inward migration rate of 22.2 per 1,000 in 2006). At the same time economic growth in emerging economies has fueled new movements of middle-class migrants seeking business opportunities, work, or a world-class education. (See Issue No. 2: Owning Up to their Evolving Migration Roles, Emerging Economies Overhaul their Immigration Policies)

Recent years have also seen a proliferation of nontraditional migration pathways. Several countries have launched investor visas, which grant residence or even citizenship in return for a financial injection into the local economy. At times, these visas also require the investor to create or save a certain number of jobs. (See Issue No. 3: The Golden Visa: "Selling Citizenship" to Investors) Intracompany transfers have reached a record high, furnishing multinationals with opportunities to meet their human-capital needs that are light on red tape. And growing numbers are pursuing education abroad: for example international students in Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries reached 2.6 million in 2010, 20 percent higher than the average over the previous five years (and 6 percent higher than in 2009). The number is projected to rise to double the current levels by 2020. Attracting international students—whether as a source of revenue, a pathway to recruit skilled workers, or a way to bolster the global standing of universities—has become a major priority in many countries.

New Migration Corridors

Although well-trodden migration pathways still shape global immigration trends, new markets and migration corridors are blooming.

Flows from developed to developing countries and emerging economies have risen, blurring the distinction between countries of origin and destination. For example, Brazil now receives a large volume of migrants from the United States, attracted by investment and business opportunities, including in the burgeoning tech industry. Many of these movers are Brazilian immigrants to the United States, or the children of these immigrants. And although economic growth has slowed in 2013, immigration to Brazil—largely from the Iberian peninsula, Latin America, and the Caribbean—has endured, due in part to large-scale construction and preparations to host the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics.

Mexico's robust manufacturing sector and economy have underpinned its emergence as a key receiving destination for the Americas—including the United States. Although the Mexico-to-United States corridor remains the world's largest, remarkable macroeconomic stability, modest growth, and improvements in social infrastructure have transformed Mexico into the "new land of opportunity," as the New York Times recently put it.

Other emerging economies have also seen a transformation from emigration to immigration. Sustained economic growth and a rising middle class have drawn Turks from abroad, as well as Germans, back to Turkey. Solid growth in Latin America, although slowing, is providing a magnet for some of Europe's new emigrants.

A Foot in More Than One Country

While labor migration is on the increase again, many of these workers may not move permanently. High-skilled workers and entrepreneurs often keep one foot in each country, fueling transnational links and partnerships. And the growth in return migration that occurred following the economic crisis showed that migration flows can be highly responsive to economic cycles.

As the world's largest laboratory on free mobility regimes, the European Union is facing a number of milestones, not least of which is large-scale movement from southern to northern Europe, especially to Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom. For instance, inflows (of non-Germans) from Italy to Germany increased by 40 percent between 2012 and 2013 (at the six-month mark), and from Spain by 39 percent. Registrations for national insurance numbers in the United Kingdom increased by 15 percent for workers from the EU-15 (old/western Europe) between December 2012 and March 2013 alone. Because many of the jobseekers leaving southern Europe are high-skilled, these patterns have triggered concern among sending-country policymakers about brain drain, and consternation at the European level about the fair management of migration flows.

Meanwhile, the impending end of labor market restrictions that countries could impose on workers from Bulgaria and Romania has brought some public anxiety in parts of northern Europe and the United Kingdom, where critics worry that people from these countries will move to exploit the more generous benefits systems available there.

As the continent sees more population churn and economic upheaval, EU mobility is facing challenges such as mitigating the negative effects of emigration and improving public confidence in the freedom of movement system. These may hint at challenges ahead for mobility more broadly. Yet the European Union is also making progress on difficult issues, like the recognition of foreign qualifications and the portability of social security benefits, which may set the standards beyond the region.


MPI Research


Eurostat. 2013. Crude rate of net migration plus adjustment. Available online.

New York Times. 2013. For Migrants, New Land of Opportunity Is Mexico. September 21, 2013. Available online.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 2013. International Migration Outlook 2013. Available online.

Papademetriou, Demetrios G. 2012. Migration Meets Slow Growth. Finance & Development (magazine of the International Monetary Fund), 49, No. 3. Available online.

Statistisches Bundesamt. 2013. Zuwanderung nach Deutschland steigt im 1. Halbjahr 2013 um 11%. News release, November 21, 2013. Available online.

UK Office for National Statistics. 2013. NINo registrations to adult overseas nationals entering the UK, world area by quarter (12 month total to the end of the quarter), 2004 to March 2013. Available online.

Wall Street Journal. 2013. Latin Migrants Shift Sights from from U.S. to Neighbors. November 18, 2013. Available online.