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Migration and displacement

Migration and displacement are global population trends that are interlinked with other demographic factors such as population size and age structure, both in the country of origin and in the host country of the migrants and refugees. Managing the opportunities and challenges associated with migration requires reliable, up-to-date demographic data.

Migration and displacement lead to a geographic redistribution of the population. On the same order of magnitude as population numbers decrease in the countries of origin, they increase in the host countries. This can have far-reaching – positive and negative – socio-economic consequences for both the sending and the receiving states. In countries where population segments emigrate or immigrate, the population may change in terms of its ethnic composition, but also its age, gender and social characteristics.

Migration presents both challenges and opportunities to sending and receiving countries

The departure of a large number of professionals (‘brain drain’) can have a negative impact on the social structure of the countries of origin, since those left behind are mainly elderly people and children. As a society ages, gaps in care can appear and economic productivity can decline.

If international migrants maintain strong ties with their countries of origin, this can have positive impacts in these countries. For example, the diaspora can often contribute to an exchange of know-how and ideas (‘brain circulation’) by transferring knowledge and experience or mobilising networks and contacts. Cash transfers from migrants to their countries of origin can also help boost the economy.

The majority of international refugees are hosted in developing countries

Particularly for economically weak host countries, transboundary migration and refugee movements present major challenges. These countries are often already struggling to provide their own citizens with healthcare, education, clean drinking water and sufficient food. A sharp increase in the population over a short period of time can put great strain on a country’s supply situation, its labour market and its political stability. Developing countries currently take in about 84% of all refugees worldwide (UNHCR, 2016).

Migration most strongly affects women, children and the elderly

Of the 125 million people who currently need humanitarian aid worldwide, 75% are women and children (UNFPA, 2017). Particularly in refugee, conflict and disaster situations, women have little or no access to basic sexual and reproductive health and rights services and are at greater risk of gender-based violence. Displacements increase mortality of mothers, infants and children, which in turn reduces life expectancy of the overall population.

Internal migrants and internally displaced persons (IDPs) face a situation similar to that of international migrants and refugees. Here, too, host regions and local authorities often find it difficult to adapt to increasing demands while the regions of origin, which are frequently in rural areas, are confronted with a decreasing population. Both internal and international migrants tend to move to urban areas.

Reliable migration data are difficult to obtain

To adjust policy-making to changes in the population’s needs caused by migration or refugee movements, disaggregated socio-demographic data are very important. However, statistics on refugees are often unreliable because displaced persons may be denied official registration, may be documented several times at different locations, or host countries may not have the required capacities to register them. Migration statistics are also often incomplete due to circular migration flows or unregistered border crossings. A lack of clarity concerning the legal status of migrants and refugees also makes it more difficult to generate reliable data on them.

Population growth can affect migration patterns

Demographic factors such as strong population growth or a large youthful population can aggravate distribution conflicts and political instability, and thus reinforce ‘push’ factors for emigration movements. Instability is, however, not triggered by the demographic situation itself, but by the interaction of a number of additional factors such as a lack of jobs and future prospects for young people. The countries of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in particular face major challenges in this regard.

Ageing societies seek ‘brain gain’ through immigration of qualified workers

Nations with ageing societies often propose special incentives to attract immigrant workers, such as good career prospects and apprenticeships. Immigration of professionals (brain gain) helps to compensate the decline in the population and in the workforce, thereby countering the ageing of society, which affects almost all European countries as well as Canada, the USA, Japan and South Korea.

For more information on the interlinkages of migration and population dynamics, please refer to Chapter 4.6 of the handbook.

How can responses to migration and displacement factor in a population dynamics approach?

To address these challenges and opportunities, stakeholders can:

  • Adjust social protection mechanisms and public infrastructure in countries of origin and host countries so that they can respond to changes in the population size and in the age, sex and social structure resulting from migration and refugee flows. 
  • Support the exchange of knowledge and ideas between countries of origin and host countries (brain circulation), e.g. to: 
    • prevent brain drain 
    • counteract a lack of skilled workers in specific sectors in the countries of origin 
    • reinforce sustainable economic development processes 
    • provide targeted support for beneficial worker mobility through training and labour market services. 
  • Provide targeted assistance for developing countries with high immigration rates and insufficient absorption capacities in order to prevent supply bottlenecks and health risks for the local population, as well as for the migrants and refugees. 
  • Expand infrastructure and services, particularly in cities, where population increase in the context of migration and displacement tends to be highest. 
  • Support migrants’ access to basic health services, particularly for pregnant women, newborns and children, in order to curb mortality rates that tend to rise in refugee, conflict and disaster situations. 
  • Introduce measures to combat gender-based violence in the refugee context, such as sex education for young people and separate sanitary facilities for women and men, as well as night-time lighting in refugee camps. 
  • Create future prospects for young people in order to prevent political instability, social imbalance and economic emigration.
  • Reinforce capacities to collect, analyse and use data on population flows, so that programme and policy design can take adequate account of how migration affects population distribution within the country, and to ensure transparency.


  • UNHCR routinely provides up-to-date information and statistics on major regional migration flows. 
  • The Migration Data Portal of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which supports the collection of migration data at the global and national levels, pools data on migration and international migration policy.
© GIZ/Dirk Betke
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