Skip to navigation

Skip to main content

Rural Migration News Blog

contact us

UN: 281 million migrants in 2020

 Click here to download this blog post as a PDF file

April 22, 2021

The UN estimated that there were 281 million international migrants in 2020, making migrants 3.6 percent of the world’s 7.7 billion people. International migrants are persons outside their country of birth for a year or more.

The stock of migrants rose by 48 million between 2000 and 2010, from 173 million to 221 million or by almost five million a year. The migrant stock rose by 60 million between 2010 and 2020, from 221 million to 281 million, up six million a year.

The number of immigrants rose from 173 million in 2000 to 281 million in 2020, up 5.4 million a year

International migration has three major features. First most migrants move from poorer to richer countries, and the top 10 senders and receivers account for over half of the total. Second, migration patterns are becoming more complex, as more migrants arrive in industrial countries as temporary workers or visitors and settle, and as more migrants move from a poorer to a richer developing country, so-called south-south migration. Third, migration affects the people and economies of both sending and receiving areas, but migration’s effects vary over time and across and within countries.

Flows. Most international migrants move short distances, from one country to another within a continent. On migration corridor maps that chart movements by world regions, the thickest arrows represent intra-region migration, as within Africa, Europe, and Eastern Europe. Significant flows between regions include Latin America to North America and Southern Asia to Western Asia.

Most international migrants stay within a region (2010-15 flows)

Europe had 87 million international migrants in 2020, followed by Asia with 86 million, Northern America with 59 million, and Africa with 25 million.

Europe and Asia each had 30% of the world’s 291 international migrants in 2020

Europe has 10 percent of the world’s people and almost a third of the world’s migrants. North America has a higher share of migrants than Europe, since Canada and the US have only five percent of the world’s people but a fifth of the world’s migrants. About 70 percent of Europe’s international migrants were born in another European country, while most of the international migrants in North America were born in other regions.

There are several ways to classify countries by their level of income. The UN distinguishes between developed and less developed countries, and reported 157 million migrants in the developed and 123 million migrants in the less developed countries, 56 and 44 percent.

The UN considers Singapore and GCC countries to be developing

Developed economies
European Union New EU member States Other Europe Other countries Major developed economies (G7)
EU-15 Bulgaria Iceland Australia Canada
Austria Croatia Norway Canada Japan
Belgium Cyprus Switzerland Japan France
Denmark Czech Republic   New Zeland Germany
Finland Estonia   United States Italy
France Hungary     United Kingdom
Germany Latvia     United States
Greece Lithuania      
Ireland Malta      
Italy Poland      
Luxembourg Romania      
Netherlands Slovakia      
Portugal Slovenia      
United Kingdom        

The World Bank defines high income countries as those with per capita incomes of $12,500 or more in 2019, and they had 182 million or 65 percent of international migrants. Note that the World Bank calls Argentina, Russia, and Venezuela former high-income countries.

The World Bank includes GCC countries, Chile, and Singapore among high-income countries

Most migrants, 177 million, are from middle income countries including China, India, Mexico, and Russia. Migrants from China and India are dispersed across many countries, while migrants from Mexico are concentrated in the US.

Half of international migrants are in 10 countries. The US has 51 million migrants or 19 percent of the total (the UN considers Puerto Ricans who have moved to the mainland to be international migrants), followed by Germany and Saudi Arabia, 13 million each, Russia, 12 million, the United Kingdom, 10 million, the United Arab Emirates, 9 million, France, Canada, and Australia, 8 million each, and Italy, 6 million.

A third of international migrants originate from ten countries, led by India with 18 million persons abroad and followed by Mexico with 12 million, China, 11 million, Russia, 10 million, and Syria, 8 million.

Patterns and Effects. Migration once meant leaving one country, settling in another, and never returning to the country of origin. Today migrants often move between countries, staying abroad for a few months or years before returning, which heightens their impacts in sending and receiving areas.

Most migrants move from developing to developed countries, or from one developed country to another. However, the gatekeepers who determine who enters and stays in developed countries have changed.

In the past, governments that attracted settler migrants specified priorities for entry, such as family unification in the US or points systems in Australia and Canada. This means that US residents would sponsor their relatives abroad for immigrant visas, while foreigners would apply for immigrant visas that would allow them to migrate to Australia and Canada. Only foreigners who receive sufficient points for their youth, education, knowledge of English or French, and having a local job offer get immigrant visas.

Consular officials abroad are no longer the gatekeepers that they were in the past. Some foreigners still obtain immigrant visas abroad, but increasingly they are already in the country when they are recognized as immigrants. In the US in FY19, over 55 percent of the immigrant visas granted went to persons already in the US, including 80 percent of the employment-based immigrant visas.

55% of all immigrants, and 80% of employment-based immigrants, were in the US when they received immigrant visas in FY19

All Immigrants
Type and class of Admission Total Adjustments of status New arrivals
Total, all immigrants 1,031,765 572,513 459,252


Employment-Based Preferences
Type and class of Admission Total Adjustments of status New arrivals
Employment-based preferences 139,458 110,689 28,769
  First: Priority workers 39,471 37,229 2,242
    Aliens with extraordinary ability, new arrivals (E11) 614 - 614
    Aliens with extraordinary ability, adjustments (E16) 3,439 3,439 -
    Outstanding professors or researchers, new arrivals (E12) 17 - 17
    Outstanding professors or researchers, adjustments (E17) 1,965 1,965 -
    Multinational executives or managers, new arrivals (E13) 142 - 142
    Multinational executives or managers, adjustments (E18) 9,497 9,497 -
    Spouses of E11, E12, E13, E16, E17, or E18, new arrivals (E14) 621 - 621
    Spouses of E11, E12, E13, E16, E17, or E18, adjustments (E19) 11,798 11,798 -
    Children of E11, E12, E13, E16, E17, or E18, new arrivals (E15) 848 - 848
    Children of E11, E12, E13, E16, E17, or E18, adjustments (E10) 10,530 10,530 -
 Second: Professionals with advanced degrees or aliens of exceptional ability 39,506 36,072 3,434
    Professionals holding advanced degrees, new arrivals (E21) 1,244 - 1,244
    Professionals holding advanced degrees, adjustments (E26) 18,590 18,590 -
    Soviet scientists, adjustments (ES6) D D -
    Spouses of E21 or E26, new arrivals (E22) 943 - 943
    Spouses of E21 or E26, adjustments (E27) 11,630 11,630 -
    Children of E21 or E26, new arrivals (E23) 1,247 - 1,247
    Children of E21 or E26, adjustments (E28) D D -
 Third: Skilled workers, professionals, and needed unskilled workers 41,787 28,248 13,539
    Skilled workers, new arrivals (E31) 4,320 - 4,320

The fact that most immigrant visas go to foreigners already in the country means that immigration gatekeepers are shifting from consular officials adjudicating immigrant visas abroad to employers and universities in the destination countries who select guest workers and students, some of whom later adjust status and become immigrants.

The fact that immigrants are already in the country changes their impacts. Many foreigners have been in the destination country for five or 10 years before becoming immigrants. Increasingly, immigrant visas are the “prize” for foreigners who satisfy their employers as guest workers or pay tuition and complete a program of study that can lead to several years of optional practical training followed by more years as a guest worker and finally an immigrant visa.


Rural Migration News Blog. 2019. DESA: 272 Million International Migrants in 2019. October.

UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). International Migration 2020.

Subscribe via Email

Click here to subscribe to Rural Migration News via email.