What impact does development have on South-North migration?

Caritas International Belgium What impact does development have on South-North migration?

In recent years, many media in Europe have focused their attention on migration from developing countries (the South) towards developed countries (the North), but the figures are clear: this type of migration is less common than migration from the South…to the South. What accounts for South-North migration? What is its impact? These are the main questions we submitted to Frédéric Docquier, economist, researcher, and professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain. The report and video of this interview are below.

Before we start the interview, it should be mentioned that the macroeconomic reasons for migration – income inequality, education level, conflict, demographics – are only part of the story. Other factors such as social and cultural norms, family status or personality traits are equally important factors of migration. All these factors are interlinked.

In 2017, the United Nations counted 258 million migrants (3% of the global population), including 97 million people migrating from South to South, 89 million from South to North, 57 million from North to North and 14 million from North to South.

Migration between countries in the South is thus the most common type of migration (38% of the international migration). It is characterized by interregional movements in Latin America, Africa, and Asia – the latter, particularly to the Gulf States. South-North migration comes second (34.5% of the international migration), including migration from Latin America, Asia, and Africa to Europe, the United States or Australia.

International MigrationCaritas International Belgium What impact does development have on South-North migration?

Professor Frédéric Docquier brings us his expertise on migration and especially about the macroeconomic factors that explain South-North migration.


Frédéric Docquier: Inequalities between countries are an important determinant of South-North migration, but it is not the only one. Other variables (possibly correlated with income level) also have an impact, such as educational level, geography, population structure, networks, etc.
Education is an important determinant of migration, as the educated have a greater tendency to migrate compared to the uneducated, especially when the country is underdeveloped[1].

Educated people come from families that generally have more financial resources and better access to information – two essential prerequisites for sending a family member abroad. Moreover, the migration policies of rich countries often explicitly discriminate against lower educated people.


Docquier: Some expect that economic development will have a negative impact on migration (that more development would mean less migration).

Actually, the impact varies depending on the level of development of the country: development has a positive impact on migration from low-income countries, an ambiguous impact on middle-income countries and a negative one on the most developed countries.

Caritas International Belgium What impact does development have on South-North migration?

  • Low-income countries: migrating is expensive. Financial constraints are therefore an obstacle to migration in very poor countries. For the latter, more development means more income, and therefore more migration.
  • Medium-income countries: these countries are sufficiently developed so that financing migration does not constitute an obstacle. Development here does not affect migration, but rather education. More development means more educated people and therefore a greater tendency to migrate (see above). This by itself would imply more migration, but more education also means a lower birth rate. The net effect of development on the stock of migrants is therefore ambiguous for these countries.
  • High-income countries: development has a negative impact on migration, as opportunities abroad become relatively less attractive compared to domestic opportunities.


Docquier: Many people think that everyone wants to leave their country. But leaving your country is a very difficult decision. Only 2-2.5% of the population in developing countries live in rich countries. Since the 1960s, this tendency to migrate from the south has remained fairly stable despite slight upward fluctuations.

This continuity can partly be explained by the fact that international inequalities between rich and poor countries have persisted since the 1960s.[2] The slight upward fluctuations can be explained by the improvement in the level of education (although on average very limited), but also by conflicts. Red.: Conflicts have particularly affected South-South migration since 85% of refugees are being received by developing countries.[3]

However, the number of migrants from the South has increased. In the 1960s, the average number of migrants in the North was 4.5%, of which 1.5% came from the South and 3% from the North. Today, the share of the North has not changed, but that of the South has risen to 8.5%.


Docquier: This is due to the demographic differences between the North and the South. Proportionally, the population in the South is growing faster than the population in the North. As a result, the number of migrants from the South – and the ratio they represent in the North – has increased. Yet the proportion of people leaving the South has remained virtually the same.


Docquier: On average, migration is positive for all countries of origin at every level of development.[4]  Migrants send money to their networks and stimulate trade, the spread of technology and ideas (gender equality, democracy, etc.).

Because of this positive impact, we need to coordinate development and migration policies. A restrictive migration policy and migration barriers influence the impact of our development policy.


This interview was conducted as part of the #whatishome campaign [5] in which we look for the link between migration and development. What is the link between migration and food security? Migration expert Anna Knoll (European Centre for Development Policy Management) explains. Soon we will also publish an interview with Frédéric Docquier about the impact of migration on the countries of arrival.
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#whatishome is a three-year social media campaign financed by the European Union in order to raise awareness and to develop education (DEAR) as part of the MIND project. 11 countries and 12 Caritas organizations are participating in this campaign. Click here for more information. The contents of this campaign fall under the responsibility of Caritas International and do not necessarily reflect the official positions of the European Union.

Caritas International Belgium What impact does development have on South-North migration?


The tendency to migrate refers to the average percentage of people leaving the country, i.e. the percentage of emigrants in relation to the total population.


Income differences between rich and poor countries have remained constant since the 1960s. Inequalities were  very large then, and they still are.

Some countries fall outside this average, particularly the emerging countries that have developed strongly and the very poor countries that have become poorer.


UNHCR, Figures at a glance, 19 June, 2018.


All results are averages. For some countries – such as Haiti or Jamaica – emigration has a negative impact on the development of the country.


#whatishome is a campaign in 11 countries with 12 Caritas organizations. It receives financial support from the European Union. Click here for more information.

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