In 2020, the number of international migrants reached 281 million; 36 million of them were children
Among the world’s migrants are nearly 34 million refugees and asylum seekers who have been forcibly displaced from their own countries – half of them children.
There is no internationally agreed on definition of migrants – usage varies by context and purpose. The most widely available numbers of international migrants refer to the number of people living in a country outside their country of birth – also called migrant stock. This measure refers to specific point in time and is irrespective from the reason for leaving the home country or the duration the person has already spent in current country of residence.
The share of the international migrant stock as part of the total population, which had remained just under three per cent between 1990 and 2005, has risen to 3.6 per cent by 2020. Together with the rising global population, this has contributed to the 83 per cent increase of the international migrant population globally from 153 million in 1990 to 281 million in 2020.The number of migrant children increased from around 24 million during the period 1990–2000 by 50 per cent to 36 million in 2020.
In 2020, the number of international migrants reached 281 million; 36 million of them were children.
Number of international migrants by age, 1990 to 2020 (in millions)
Child migration data
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Notes on the data
International migrants: Persons living in a country or area other than their country of birth.
Refugees: Person who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence, who cannot return due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This number only accounts those who have been recognized as refugees or find themselves in refugee-like situations. Data are presented in thousands.
Asylum seeker: Persons whose application for asylum or refugee status is pending at any stage in the asylum procedure. If granted, persons are regarded as refugees. Data are presented in thousands.
Internal displaced persons: Persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized border. Data presented in this table refer only to persons displaced due to conflict and violence. Data are presented in thousands.
Ratification of key human right instruments: Number of legal instruments related to children and international migration ratified by each country. The legal instruments refer to: (a) the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, (b) Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 and Protocol 1967, (c) the 2000 Protocol to Prevent Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (d) the 2000 Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, Air, (e) the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrants and Members of Their Families. Data are expressed in numbers.
Total population by country or area: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, World Population Prospects: The 2019 Revision, United Nations, New York, 2019.
International migrants by country of destination: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2019 Revision, United Nations, New York, 2017. Share of under 18 calculated by UNICEF based on United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Age and Sex, United Nations, New York, 2019.
International migrants by country of origin: United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Destination and Origin. United Nations, New York, 2019.
Refugees by country of asylum: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018, UNHCR, Geneva, 2019.
Refugees by country of origin: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018. UNHCR, Geneva, 2019. Share of under 18 from UNHCR unpublished data, cited with permission.
Asylum seekers: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2018, UNHCR, Geneva, 2019.
Internally displaced persons (IDPs): Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Global Internal Displacement Database (GIDD), IDMC, 2019.
Legal frameworks: United Nations Treaty Collection; see http://treaties.un.org (as of 13 July 2016).
Call for data
Comparable, reliable, timely, disaggregated and accessible data are essential for understanding and addressing the implications of migration for children and their families. Data need to cover a range of key questions, including who migrants and displaced persons are, how old they are, where they come from, when they move, where they move, why they move and how they fare.
A first step toward closing the data gaps about child migrants and refugees is identifying who and where those children are. Accounting for migrant children – especially refugee children – is fundamental for their protection. Beginning more than a decade ago, UNHCR declared unequivocally that ”the registration of children should always be a priority when registering persons of concern to UNHCR”. More consistent efforts to identify the origins and destinations of child refugees are also needed, including through the adoption of consistent and reliable techniques for determining the ages of children who arrive without documentation. Population registers and censuses are essential tools for closing some of these gaps, particularly for non-refugee migrant children. As the predominant data source on international migration, every census should collect information on the country of birth, the country of citizenship, and the country of previous residence for respondents.
A second and equally important step toward closing data gaps is improving information about the well-being of children impacted by migration and displacement. Outcomes related to water and sanitation, education, gender, child protection, social inclusion and health need to be assessed for migrant and refugee children and considered in relation to the outcomes to native-born children. Data disaggregated by migratory status will be particularly relevant to monitor progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals for children and families in vulnerable situations. To bolster the overall quality of information about the well-being and progress of migrant children, pertinent administrative data should be more accessible and household surveys should be adjusted to include relevant migration questions. New technologies and data sources also have tremendous potential to improve current knowledge about migration movements. Data from social media, mobile phones and other sources can provide geo-spatial and temporal information about population movements in real time, facilitating timely and more responses for people on the move. Continued investment in both new and traditional data sources will be essential to effectively meeting the rights and needs of children and families in the years to come.