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How many expats are there worldwide?

How Many Expats Are There Worldwide?

Are More People On The Move Than Ever Before?

Twenty-five years ago, there were more than 154 million international migrants who – for one reason or another – packed up their homes in their native countries and moved to become expatriates in another part of the world.

Now that figure stands at over 232 million (3.2% of the world’s total population) – the highest number of international migrants ever recorded by the UN’s surveys.

In the interactive map above you’ll be able to identify the number of migrants in each country by clicking. The data comes from the United Nations Population Division, which counts the number of people living outside of their birth countries.

The UN defines a migrant as a person who has been living for one year or longer in a country other than the one in which he or she was born. The figure therefore includes refugees and asylum seekers as well as economic migrants — anyone who has crossed a border, legally or illegally, for whatever reason (more on definitional issues later).

Movement of people, particular in regions with large and porous borders, is notoriously difficult to accurately measure. The UN has, therefore, almost certainly underestimated.

Where do migrants live?

Over half of all migrants (119 million) live in in just 10 countries. The largest number by far (46 million people or, to put it another way, 20% of all global migrants) live in the United States. A staggering 13 million those US migrants came from just one country – Mexico. In fact the US-Mexico border is the most popular bilateral migration route on the planet.

“In 2013 45,790,000 people living in the United States were born in other countries”

Russia, thanks to its close ties to a large number of central Asian countries, is second with just over 11 million migrants. Germany comes in third with almost 10 million, thanks largely to more than 5 million people of Turkish descent calling the country home.

The UAE — fifth overall in terms of its migrant population — takes the crown as the country with the highest population of migrants relative to Emirati citizens. Across the seven emirates, which include Dubai and Abu Dhabi, 84% of the population was born overseas and are yet to obtain Emirati citizenship.

The United Kingdom — sixth in terms of overall migrant numbers — is home to most diverse immigrant population in the world. When scored according to the Herfindhal-Hirschman index, the UK has a diversity of immigrant home countries of 97 out of 100. The US, by comparison, has a score of 91.

Where do migrants come from?

India, the second largest country in the world by population, has the largest migrant population — and it’s growing fast. The number of Indians living outside India doubled between 1990 and 2013, from 7 million to 14 million. Indians migrate widely too.  There are “substantial” Indian expat populations — defined as over 1,000 people — in 138 countries around the world.

“The number of Indians living outside India has double since 1990, from 7 to 14 million”

The second largest group – migrants from Mexico — are far less diverse in their choice of destination, however. There are Mexican expatriate populations in just 74 countries, with the vast majority of Mexican migrants calling the United States home.

Russia, with its large and porous borders, is the third largest source of global migrants. Almost 10 million Russians called a country other than Russia home in 2013.

Of the top 10 counties, the United Kingdom stands out. Relative to its overall population the UK has a huge population living abroad, with over 5 million migrants. By way of contrast, the United States, with a population over four times larger than Britain’s, has just 3 million citizens living overseas.

The UK also stands out among the top 10 by the diversity of its migrants’ destinations. There are substantial British migrant populations in 151 countries across the world. In terms of sheer global presence the UK is second only to the United States which has a substantial migrant population in an enormous 164 countries.

Migrants or Expats?

The list of countries of migrant origin is a stark reminder that most migration is from less economically developed countries to those that are more economically developed – often from countries facing harsh economic conditions, such as Bangladesh, or that have been ripped apart by war and internal conflict, like Afghanistan.

These people, in their tens of millions, leave their home countries to escape disaster, to avoid persecution, or simply in search of a better quality of life. From the Mediterranean to the Bay of Bengal and the Gulf of Mexico, the news this year has been dominated by tales of desperate people taking desperate measures to obtain a better life.

I don’t generally write about the experiences of these people and yet the generalized name of my website – The Expat Blog – implies that I should. The term expat is, after all, entirely synonymous with migrant.

Wikipedia tells us that the word expat comes from the Latin “ex”, meaning “out of”, and “patria”, meaning “country or fatherland”. An expat is therefore a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country other than that of their citizenship. That is basically identical to the UN’s definition of a migrant.

An article published in The Guardian earlier this year (and shared around the world an astonishing half a million times since) goes so far as to argue that the term expat is part of a racist double-standard. White westerners are “expats”, while everyone else is an “immigrant”.

The author, Mawuna Remarque Koutonin, reasonably, posits that by the basic definition of “expat” one should “expect that any person going to work outside of his or her country for a period of time would be an expat, regardless of his skin color or country”.

Muwuna is absolutely right. How we use language really matters – perpetually discussing global migration in terms of Western expats and Black, Asian, Latino etc. immigrants perpetuates negative social attitudes towards certain migrant groups.

The answer, I believe – and the first editorial rule of The Expat Blog from now on — is to use the term expat as it should be; synonymously with migrant. By consciously using the term to encompass all people, regardless of where they are from originally, it can be separated from its existing context and come to be used accurately, without prejudice.

So how many expats are there worldwide? There are 232 million. They move for a whole variety of reasons and from a wide variety of countries, but they share a common experience of living outside their country of citizenship and they therefore merit the same descriptive noun.


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2 thoughts on “How Many Expats Are There Worldwide?

  1. The information and the numbers are definitely interesting. The word usage is also interesting. While technically they may mean the same thing, there are certainly nuances to the words. I often think of ‘expats’ as people who’ve left their country by choice. They’re off on a lark, an adventure, maybe a great job opportunity. In any case, the paramount force is choice. They could have made a fine life in their country of origin, in fact, they may even move back one day.

    For me, the word ‘migrant’ or ‘immigrant’ has always had an air of hardship surrounding it. Migrating was an attempt to improve living conditions and opportunities for future generations. It speaks of struggle and oppression. Migrants often take incredible risks and endure far more than many of us can imagine.

    Perhaps the distinction isn’t all bad. The differences are notable, although there’s certainly an intersection of the two. Regardless of the label, the stories from people who’ve moved from country to country and culture to culture are rich, diverse, and worth exploring.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Dana! I think you’re absolutely right that there are some differences in the words general uses — with expats tending to mean temporary overseas workers and migrants meaning people making a more permanent move.

      That said, I was struck by Mawuna’s point in his Guardian article that we might not automatically refer to someone temporarily migrating for work from somewhere other than the US or Western Europe an expat… we don’t commonly refer to Eastern Europeans working for a few years in the UK, for example, as expats and yet that is exactly what they are. So, while I agree there are differences, its difficult ground and there are certainly no universally accepted definitions. All I can do on this blog, I hope, is try to use terms in a fair, equitable and non-prejudiced way.

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