E.g., 10/04/2023
E.g., 10/04/2023
Counting Immigrants in Cities across the Globe

Counting Immigrants in Cities across the Globe

In cities around the world, but especially in Western Europe, Australia, the Persian Gulf, and North America, immigrants play a fundamental role in the labor force and the social life of cities. For North American and Australian cities, the numbers of immigrants are reminiscent of the early-20th century, although the diversity is far greater. In Western Europe and the Persian Gulf, unprecedented numbers of newcomers have arrived in the past two decades.

By focusing on urban immigration and settlement in the city, it is possible to see how global processes become localized, from highly visible Chinese commercial districts to the enclaves of residential guest workers to the barely visible lives of foreign nannies in scattered suburban settings. A global perspective makes it possible to distinguish new or emerging immigrant destinations alongside established cities.

While the United Nations collects data on the numbers of foreign born residing in countries, the same is not true for the enumeration of the foreign born at the metropolitan or urban scale for cities around the world.

Therefore, answering the question "What are the world's top urban immigrant destinations?" required drilling down into existing census data from countries on every continent — data that never before had been gathered. Ultimately, data on the foreign born in 150 cities was compiled (see the Globalization Urbanization and Migration website).

A quick review of the numbers gathered in this research reveals a top tier of cities that are both global economic centers and magnets for immigrants. There are also major urban immigrant destinations that urban and migration scholars tend to overlook, especially cities in the Middle East. Also, several cities of global importance have relatively few immigrants.

Overall, immigrant cities are growing in number due to globalization and the acceleration of immigrant flows driven by income differentials, social networks, and various state policies.


As noted, this analysis uses data on the foreign born found in national censuses rather than the yearly flow of immigrants reported by various government agencies. The data are from a range of years, as country censuses are conducted in different years. Most of the data, however, are from the years 2000 to 2005.

The value of working with national censuses is that data on the foreign born can be extracted at the urban/metropolitan scale. Secondly, more often than not, individuals recorded in a census reflect a residential stock of foreign born while more transient flows of foreign-born tourists, students, and temporary workers are less likely to be counted in a census.

The cities mapped in this report are metropolitan areas of 1 million or more people with at least 100,000 foreign-born residents. Data were constructed by examining information on the foreign born for 150 cities in 52 countries.

Since many immigrants reside in suburbs and not just city centers, metropolitan-level data were sought whenever possible over just data on the official city limits. Admittedly, many smaller localities can be important immigrant destinations (say a university town or a specialized agro-industrial center), but understanding what is happening in the world's largest and most connected metropolitan areas was the priority.

Gathering comparable urban-level data is difficult. The definition of "urban" varies and metropolitan boundaries often change. However, inconsistencies are a problem in any comparative international urban research, but such difficulties should not preclude research being undertaken and general trends noted.

There are also different definitions of what constitute the foreign born, although most states define the foreign born as individuals born outside the territorial state. In cases of large, circular immigration flows, the foreign born label can be misleading. These "foreign-born" individuals could be the children of the native born and be undistinguishable from the general population. Thus their foreign-ness is determined strictly by their place of birth and does not take into account their cultural heritage.

Despite these limitations, documenting the foreign born found in census data is an important first step in studying the world's immigrant cities.

Top 20 Cities

Figure 1. Cities with over 1 Million Foreign-born Residents. Click here for a larger version of the map.

The data reveal 20 cities with more than 1 million foreign-born residents (see Figure 1). Combined, these metropolitan areas have 37 million foreign-born residents, which accounts for 19 percent of the world's foreign-born stock according to the United Nations. These few points on the globe are the destinations for one in five of the world's immigrants.

This selectivity of immigrant destinations underscores the significance of cities, especially a few large ones, as locations that are disproportionately impacted by immigration.

Figure 1 also clearly demonstrates that immigration is a global phenomenon — nine cities are in North America, with three in Europe, four in the Middle East, two in Asia, and two in Australia/Oceania. The United States is home to eight of these cities, followed by Saudi Arabia, which has three of the top urban immigrant destinations.

Many of these cities are established immigrant gateways such as Sydney, New York, London, Chicago, and Toronto. Other cities have topped the 1-million mark only recently. In 2005, Dubai; Houston; Washington, DC; Dallas-Ft. Worth; and San Francisco were added.

Latin American and African cities are absent from Figure 1, although they are destinations for internal and international migrants. This reflects the fact that most countries in these regions have a negative rate of net migration, meaning more emigrants leaving then immigrants arriving.

Buenos Aires, a long-established immigrant destination, had fewer than 1 million foreign-born residents according to the 2001 Argentine census (approximately 920,000 foreign born), a decrease from earlier censuses. Other megacities in Latin America, such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Mexico City, attract far fewer foreign-born residents. If anything, these localities tend to be sources for immigrants to other regions of the world, including North America, Europe, and Japan.

For many African countries, the data are simply not available at the urban scale. Even if the data were available, there is little evidence that African cities are attracting large numbers of foreign-born residents, with the exception of some cities in South Africa.

Next Tier: North American and European Cities Dominate


Figure 2. Cities with over 100,000 Foreign-born Residents. Click here for a larger version of the map.

Figure 2 maps cities with at least 100,000 foreign born. In this figure the North American and European cities stand out as key immigrant destinations. The dominance of North America, a traditional region of immigration, is not surprising, but the range of cities, especially in the United States, has expanded to include southeastern cities such as Atlanta and western cities outside of California and Texas, such as Seattle, Denver, and Las Vegas.

All the Western European states now have at least one major immigrant city, and states such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom have several (see Figure 2). In fact, 30 European cities have over 100,000 foreign born. Since European metropolitan areas tend to be smaller than North American ones, the 100,000-person threshold often accounts for 10 percent or more of a city's total population.

The numbers of foreign born in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kyiv, and Tiblisi are also significant, but the numbers are more a byproduct of political change and reclassification of people after the break-up the Soviet Union in 1991. Peoples who were once classified as citizens of the Soviet Union turned into "foreign-born" residents if their republic of birth was not their republic of residence. The cities of the former Soviet Union are destinations of new or "nontraditional" immigrants, such as Afghans, Angolans, and Chinese, but their numbers are still relatively small.

The Middle East and Oceania (including Australia and New Zealand) also have many urban immigrant destinations. Oceania has Auckland, Brisbane, and Perth, while the Middle Eastern cities include Istanbul, Amman, Muscat, Karachi, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem.

The large number of immigrants in the Arab cities of the Persian Gulf is due to temporary worker programs that result in thousands of laborers migrating to this region, especially form North Africa and South Asia. The extreme case is Dubai, where over 80 percent of the population is foreign born, mostly from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Seldom are these workers permitted to settle permanently in these cities, but they do account for a major proportion of the labor force and the population. Even though most immigrants are "temporary," these cities are among the top destinations in the world and warrant further investigation.

The Israeli case is also unique in that all Jews are legally permitted to immigrate to the Jewish homeland. In fact, the state of Israel does not classify these arrivals as immigrants but as returnees. Given the relative newness of the state of Israel and the large influx of newcomers from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, over one-third of the residents in the state of Israel were not born in the country.

Several important East Asian cities appear in Figure 2, including Seoul, Nagoya, Tokyo, Osaka, and Taipei. These are major urban agglomerations with well over 5 million people but with foreign-born numbers ranging from 100,000 to 250,000, which is proportionally very low. For example, less than 1 percent of Seoul's population is foreign born.

At the same time, these Asian countries and cities have seen a rapid increase in foreign-born workers in the past 15 years. This change has been driven both by demographic shifts (the aging of the population) and economic need. Although newcomers are usually admitted only on a temporary basis (typically as worker trainees) with limited access to permanent residency or citizenship, it is highly likely that the numbers of foreign-born workers will continue to increase in cities in this region, especially from China, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

In Latin America, in contrast, emigration from the region has become the norm. In the early-20th century, cities such as São Paulo and Buenos Aires attracted tens of thousands of immigrants. Likewise, the oil boom in Venezuela in the mid-20th century attracted new immigrants from Europe (especially Portugal, Spain, and Italy) as well as from neighboring Colombia to the cities of Caracas and Maracaibo. These Venezuelan cities still have substantial foreign-born populations from Europe, South America, and Asia, but the absolute numbers of foreign born, as well as the percentage of foreign born compared to the overall city populations, is declining.

Moreover, these Latin American cities are losing native-born and foreign-born residents to destinations in Europe, Japan, and the United States. It is quite possible that if the macroeconomic situation improves for the region, inflows of migrants, especially from poorer countries in South America, will result. Yet the historical source countries for South America (Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Japan) are unlikely to contribute significant numbers of immigrants to the populations of these cities.

Finally, Figure 2 shows only two African cities: Johannesburg, South Africa, and Accra, Ghana. In general, the data for this region are poor, and certainly there is more interregional movement of people between countries than this map suggests. Moreover, many of the refugee populations in this region are probably not picked up in the urban data. South Africa, the most prosperous country in sub-Saharan Africa, is likely to continue growing as a destination for African immigrants.


While many cities attract the majority of their immigrants from a narrow range of countries — thus Mexicans dominate in Los Angeles or Houston, while Turks are the leading group in Berlin, Indians in Dubai, and Malaysians in Singapore — others are extremely diverse.

These "hyperdiverse" localities are defined as cities in which:

  1. at least 9.5 percent of the total population is foreign born (this is the average percent of foreign-born stock for developed countries according to the United Nations);
  2. no one country of origin accounts for 25 percent or more of the immigrant stock; and
  3. immigrants come from all regions of the world.

Cities that meet this definition include established gateways such as New York, London, and Toronto, which together have approximately 9 million foreign-born residents. Other hyperdiverse cities include Sydney; Amsterdam; Copenhagen; Washington, DC; Hamburg; Munich; San Francisco; and Seattle. Such cities are a product of the globalization of labor that has both economic and cultural implications.

Figure 3. Foreign-Born Population of Toronto by Country of Origin (2001). Click here for a larger version of the pie chart.

Figure 3 illustrates the internationalization of present-day Toronto, one of the most hyper-diverse metropolitan areas in the world. With over two million foreign-born residents, no one group dominates Toronto's immigrant stock. Nine countries account for half of the foreign-born population, while the rest of the foreign born come from nearly every country in the world.


Mapping the world's current immigrant gateways is a snapshot approach to a far more complex immigration story. Given limitations in the data, especially the lack of data for the urban foreign born for China, India, and most of Africa, major urban centers in these regions are not included here. While the foreign born are, no doubt, a growing presence in these areas, they likely represent only a very small percentage of total urban populations.

By filling in the map of the world's urban immigrant destinations, this work presents an aggregate view of contemporary immigrant destinations. It focuses not on borders or countries but on cities, the places were most immigrants settle. How the native born and newcomers live amid such diverse social spaces is an opportunity and a challenge that requires the active attention of urban officials and communities.

The authors' research on immigration to cities was funded by the George Washington Center for the Study of Globalization. They are the editors of the forthcoming book, Migrants to the Metropolis: The Rise of Immigrant Gateway Cities (Syracuse University Press).

They also created the Globalization, Urbanization and Migration website where the data and sources for the foreign born in particular cities can be viewed. See www.gstudynet.org/gum.

Recommended Reading

Anisef, P. and M. Lanphier (eds.) 2003. The World in a City. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Benton-Short, L.M., M. Price and S. Friedman. 2005. "Globalization from Below: Ranking World Cities." International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29(4):945-959.

Catles, S. and M. Miller. 2003. The Age of Migration, third edition. New York: Guildford.

Foner, N. 2005. In a New Land: A Comparative View of Immigration. New York: New York University Press.

Hugo, G. 2006. "Immigration Responses to Global Change in Asia: a Review." Geographical Research 44(2): 155-172.

Ley, D. and P. Murphy. 2001. "Immigration in Gateway Cities: Sydney and Vancouver in Comparative Perspective." Progress in Planning 55(3): 119-194.

Pennix, R.; K. Kraal, M. Martiniello, and S. Vertetoc, editors. 2004. Citizenship in European Cities: Immigrants, Local Politics and Integration Policies. Ashgate: Hampshire, United Kingdom.

Price, M.; I. Cheung, S. Friedman, and A. Singer. 2005. "The World Settles In: Washington, D.C. as an Immigrant Gateway." Urban Geography 26 (1): 61-83.

Short, J.R. and Y. Kim. 1999. Globalization and the City. Addison Wesley Longman.

Singer, A. 2004. "The rise of new immigrant gateways." The Brookings Institution. 2004. The Living Cities Census Series, February.

Taylor, P.J. 2004. World City Network: A Global Urban Analysis. New York: Routledge.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2002. "International Migration Report 2002." New York: United Nations.

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division. 2006. "Migrant Stock Data 2006." New York: United Nations.