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Visualizing migration

Listen to some of the more overheated rhetoric in America about immigration – Lou Dobbs, perhaps, or Representative Tom Tancredo, who is running a long-shot presidential campaign on immigration issues – and you’d expect these demagogues to come from parts of the country where Spanish had become the dominant language. Kirk Johnson, in the NYTimes Week in Review, points out that Tancredo actually represents the whitest district in Colorado, a district with an 8% Hispanic population, as contrasted with a 15% population across the US. Johnson goes on to suggest that what Tancredo is afraid of isn’t immigration so much as anxiety about a global economy where workers compete not just with their neighbors, but with workers in Mexico and China. (Even this is a lousy explanation for Tancredo’s fears, as Colorado’s economy is expanding, especially in Tancredo’s district.)

This conversation about American immigration anxiety and global economics is a good invitation to look at international migration dynamics… something that the Times makes very easy, with an excellent set of maps about migration, one of which appears in the same issue of the paper. (The online version is a great example of the power of multimedia, as it features five related maps and makes it far easier to access the data than the paper version.) The leading map in the set shows nations that are gaining or losing population through migration. The US is the largest gainer, with roughly 1.3 million migrants per year between 2000 and 2005. Mexico is the biggest loser, with roughly 800,000 people a year leaving, many of them heading north. While this is the sort of map that gives Dobbs nightmares, it’s worth checking out the accompanying map, which shows migrants as a share of population. Migrants represent 12.86% of the US population, well below Canada’s 18.92%, Australia’s 20.33% or Switzerland’s 22.88%. And these countries have nothing on UAE and Qatar, each of which have populations that are more than 70% immigrant.

The US is way above the mean in global immigration – there are roughly 190 million people around the world living in countries other than their country of birth, or roughly 3%, and slightly more than 20% of the world’s migrants are in the US. But rich countries will tend to be above the mean – migrants leave for richer countries, not for poorer ones, and it’s rare countries like Japan that have robust economies and low migration (1.7% of the world’s migrants.) Economist Daniel Cohen, in his brilliant “Globalization and its Enemies“, observes that this global level of immigration is a historically low one – in 1913, immigrants made up about 10% of the world’s population. By comparison, Cohen characterizes our current moment in globalization as “virtual”, “imaginary” or “immobile”:

Merchandise is traded among all parts of the world, but it is only through television, or during a few vacation weeks for tourists for rich countries, that one encounters other societies. Yesterday’s globalization was very different, at least in regard to Europeans population new lands. The effects of this globalization were not achieved through commodities or images but principally tghrough people who physically – not “virtually” – left one world for another.

What’s most interesting to me about the migration map is the less predictable gainers and losers. Spain’s gain of 570,000 per year is familiar to Afrophiles who’ve been watching migration from West Africa to Europe through Morocco, which has lost 110,000 migrants per year. But I was surprised to see that Afghanistan has seen a migrant inflow of 222,000 per year over the past five years, evidence that despite instability, some Afghanis are seeing opportunities in returning home. I was deeply surprised to see Russia’s popularity as an immigrant destination, with 183,000 immigrants per year. Russia is surrounded by countries losing immigrants, and this inflow of migrants has generated significant societal tension.

Of the BRIC nations – the large emerging economies that many economists think will be powerhouses early in this new century – Russia is the only one gaining population. China lost 380,000 migrants per year, India lost 270,000 and Brazil lost 46,000. (If you expand BRIC to BRICS, South Africa gained 15,000 a year.) Remittance from migrants was a substantial portion of the economy in India, representing over 3% of GDP. That’s nothing compared to heavy remittance economies like the Philippines (12.76% of GDP) or Jamaica (16.88%), but it’s a useful reminder for anyone fascinated by India’s hypergrowth – this is still an economy that’s losing workers because there’s insufficient domestic employment, and where remittance capital is still a key contributor to the economy.

I suspect that immigration opponents will see little but threat in maps like these, evidence that wages earned in wealthy nations allow poor and corrupt governments to remain in power through parasitic relationships. I see something very different – evidence that economic growth has a close relationship to labor and capital mobility. Looking at the map of remittance, it’s worth noting that significant amounts of money are sent home by migrants from Western Europe, a sign of labor mobility within the EU. The economies that are emerging as powerhouses are bringing in huge amounts of overseas capital. And the nations most desperate for aid and investment, especially those in Sub-Saharan Africa, are receiving extremely small remittances in absolute dollar terms.

In other words, as an Afrophile, I’d like to see a great deal more outmigration from Africa, both to increase remittance income and to open the possibility of the sorts of “good diasporas” we’re starting to see in countries like Rwanda and Ghana, where the populations returning home have investment capital and skills acquired abroad, which they can use to start businesses at home… which might reduce the need for the next generation to emigrate.

A couple of open questions I’d be very grateful for input into:

– There’s a couple of migration questions the maps open up that I can’t explain very well. Why is Tanzania losing almost 70,000 people a year, and where are they going? Is the inflow of migrants to Eritrea (46,000 a year) connected to outflows from Ethiopia? Would love your thoughts in the comments.

– If Cohen is right about “virtual globalization”, we would expect to see evidence in early 20th century literature about reactions to globalization, immigrant panic, etc. I’ve got absolutely no knowledge of this period of time, and would greatly appreciate pointers to evidence of either pro-globalization or anti-globalization attitudes in Europe and the US just before the Great Depression. Again, please have at it in the comments field and assign me some reading.

8 thoughts on “Visualizing migration”

  1. What I would like to see are the flows between countries, something like: you place your mouse over a country and you see all the incoming and outgoing flows (weighted arrows).
    I was very surprised as well to see so much immigration in Afghanistan and I’m really wondering from where people emigrate in Afghanistan, from Europe? From Middle East? From Russia? From Where?
    I’m also very curious about where people from China and Russia emigrate to.

    It would be extremely interesting to see the flow of remittances as well. For instance in Moldova 28.38% of GDP is share sent home by migrants and almost all of them I think are women working in Western Europe as take-care-of-old-people in their house and almost, at least in Italy, without a contract.

    About your questions, I have no idea, I think the dataset is this one
    but there are no data about flows from X to Y, only about aggregated flows.

  2. About anti-globalization attitudes in US, I’m not sure this can be interesting for you but in Italy there was a good book titled “Quando gli albanesi eravamo noi” (“When Albanians were us”, referring to the fact that there is a lot of hate against Albanians in Italy at the moment, because they migrate here and steal our jobs and all of them are illegals, bad people … but in fact Italians were in their shoes just few years ago when Italians migrate to other countries. And it is peculiar the fact we already forgot “when the Albanians were us”).
    Anyway, the book is in Italian so I guess of little use for you and deals only about the perception of Italians in the world at that time.
    There is a web site (in Italian as well) with a lot of info
    and also pictures (many from US newspapers)
    for example http://rcslibri.corriere.it/rizzoli/stella/immagini/vignette/images/ziosam.gif

    And how Italians were called:
    Dago was popular (from “dagger” probably because Italians were said to always have a dagger to stub people).

    The Web site cites this book
    Vendetta: The True Story of the Largest Lynching in U. S. History
    By Gambino, Richard

    But again this is not related to anti-globalization but more about anti-italianism, but this is what I know about ;-)

  3. For Tanzania, I can’t tell. Anecdotally, there is much emigration for study opportunities. But that couldn’t accout for those type of numbers. Illegaly there is much emigration to South Africa, but if illegal, how would it be counted? A likely contributory factor is repratriation of refugees in recent years.

    For Eritrea, there was considerable forced repatriation by the Ethiopian authorities during the war. But that peaked around 2000. Again anecdotally, it seemed to really tail off from then through 2004. I would imagine a factor is incomplete records management. For an extreme example, the maps also tell us that Somalia gained 20,000. Who’s been keeping records?

    A little while ago, you wrote of remittances. The most commonly quoted figure for Tanzania is USD7 million (which seems ridiculously low) yet the map gives a figure of “USD 0.2 billion”. A considerable difference.

  4. Hey Ethan,

    You might want to check out the recent (and magisterial) work on US immigration policy by Aristide Zolberg of the New School, “A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America”, ISBN 0674022181, Russell Sage Fdtn. Books, 2006.

    A good review of the book can be found at



  5. Just happened to have came across this the other day, but there’s no mention of fear of invasions coming from outside Europe. Maybe immigrant panic then didn’t have the breadth of imagination or media instigation that it does today.

  6. I refer to Comment No. 4 above and to add that, as ever, much of the statistical information provided depends on the source along with the purpose, context and an element of spin. In the case of Eritrea, much is spoken about the large numbers of nationals leaving the country and applying for asylum in Western countries. Western countries need to understand that not all those claiming to be Eritreans for immigration purposes, are in fact Eritrean nationals. This is a complex matter which distorts statistics, but which suits applicants in getting their desired outcome, i.e. that of being granted permission to stay in the country where they have applied for asylum

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