Since the beginning of time, the search for better life opportunities has been the inherent objective of every migratory project. At the dawn of mankind, it was its own transhumant nature, famines and climatic inclemencies, then also war conflicts, that led millions of people to move around the globe. Centuries later, economic and political motives became just another leg of the migratory movement table.

Today, on the other hand, it is factors related to the globalized society in which we live that are the main drivers of mass migration. We would include here the increase in inequality resulting from the brutal division of wealth and the persistence of huge differences between the quality of life in some countries and others -due to wars or oppressive political regimes-; the effects of climate change on human life, especially in the poorest countries; the globalization of the supply and demand for labor; or the global competition for talent.

On World Migrants Day, which is celebrated on December 18, we will review this phenomenon. We will analyze its present, its causes and its past, trying to reach the most accurate possible conclusion about its impact on present and future migration laws.

International migration on the rise

Estimates published by the United Nations in December 2017 spoke of some 258 million people, 3.4% of the world's population, living in a country other than their country of origin. This was an increase of 49% compared to 2003. A clear sign that international migration was a rising dynamic.

International migrant population in the world, 1990-2015. Source: ESC Report 02/2019. Data from DESA (UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs).

This trend was confirmed last year. In June 2019, according to the recent International Organization for Migration (IOM) report, the number of international migrants was already estimated at nearly 272 million worldwide, 14 million more than in 2017. Of these, nearly two-thirds were labor migrants.

Percentage-wise, the 272 million international migrants would be an increase of 0.1% over 2017 — up 3.5% from 3.4% — but vastly higher when compared to past decades. International migrants accounted for 2.8% of the world's population in 2000 and only 2.3% in 1980.

By continent, Asia is home to the largest number of international migrants, with almost 31% of these citizens. In second place is Europe, with 30% of intakes; the Americas, with 26%; Africa, with 10%; and Oceania, with 3%. This, however, would not reflect the reality of internally displaced persons or immigrants, a section in which Africa would gain a great deal of weight compared to the other continents.

Forced displacement is one of the main reasons for the

Currently, one of the inescapable reasons when interpreting immigration is to delve into the concept of displaced persons. According to UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people worldwide was 79.5 million at the end of 2019. Of these, 26 million were refugees. This figure would almost double that of two decades ago, when the number of refugees was 14 million.

Ranking of countries with the largest number of displaced citizens, excluding Palestine. Source: UN.

In this case, as can be seen in the previous graph, the main reasons for forced displacement would be wars or situations of political conflict. Here we see how three countries in constant warlike or pseudo-warlike conflict in recent years —Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan— occupy the four main positions of displaced persons.

Of course, political reasons are not the only ones that motivate migration. We could include economic factors, globalized world trade, social and cultural ties, demographics, security, geography, proximity and one that is gaining weight over the years: those affected by climate change.

Comparison with the past

All this panorama shows an irrefutable truth: the migratory phenomenon is currently experiencing an upward trend compared to the last 30 years. This increase, however, must be put into perspective. Compared with other periods in history, the situation is not as alarming as some would have us believe.

For example, during the first great migration at the beginning of the 19th century, some 60 million Europeans emigrated to the American continent. No lesser was the second great wave of the 20th century, which began after World War II, with millions of refugees and an upsurge in migratory flows from the most varied points. And the world, in spite of everything, survived.

Evolution of migration in Sweden: in red, immigrants received, in blue, emigrants issued. 1851-2007. Source: Wikipedia.


Thus, by analyzing the present, future direction and past of migratory movements, several conclusions seem to be drawn. On the one hand, that this is a volatile phenomenon. One in which, being analyzed from a historical perspective, it shows moments of boom and bust. And today we are experiencing an upward dynamic. However, the phenomenon of climate change may intensify it.

This historical perspective helps us not to sound the alarm immediately. However, globalized society would do well to keep an eye on certain factors — political, military and, above all, climatic — that could cause this dynamic to escalate to unsustainable limits. What is clear is that much work lies ahead.

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