Migration Statistics: Let's Make Better Use of Existing Data


Did you know that in 2019, 111 countries around the world were able to share some data about their migration policies in a global survey conducted by UN DESA, IOM and OECD?1
Did you know that in 2018, Facebook data showed that there are approximately 273 million “expats” globally – a figure close to the UN count of 258 million migrants in 2017?2
And did you know that 298 country “Migration Profiles” have been produced in recent years? Such examples illustrate that there is more migration data available than is perhaps commonly realised.

On January 19th 2020 hundreds of people from all over the world will come to Cairo to discuss how to improve data on migration at the second International Forum on Migration Statistics (IFMS). Organised by IOM, OECD and UN DESA, and hosted by the Government of Egypt during its Presidency of the African Union, the IFMS is a unique global forum focusing on how to improve the collection, analysis and use of data on migration.

While much of the discussion at the IFMS will focus on new ways of collecting data on migration it´s important to keep in mind that an enormous amount of migration data already exists.  It is essential, especially when resources are scarce, to ensure that these data are fully utilised. This brief article suggests some ways in which to make better use of the migration data which are already being collected by national authorities, international agencies, the private sector and other groups.

Exploit national administrative data

Just over ten years ago I was a member of a “Commission on Migration Data” which produced the report “Migrants Count – 5 Steps Toward Better Migration Data.” One of our key recommendations was to “use administrative data on international migrants more extensively.”3
 We found that most countries collect administrative data which can tell them quite a lot about migration even if such data are not always designed primarily for this purpose. Administrative data from temporary or permanent residence permits, visas and population registries can provide a rich source of information about migration. Administrative data are usually already collected on an ongoing basis in countries, offering high coverage and potentially timely information. One of the major advantages of using statistics derived from administrative sources is their relatively low cost as such data are already collected for other purposes.

However, data from administrative sources are often not fully utilized to produce migration statistics. Too often these data are scattered within countries between different agencies and ministries, making it difficult to obtain an accurate understanding of national migration trends. As we concluded in 2009: “Mining this rich vein of migration-relevant data requires closer cooperation between ministries in charge of migration and national statistical offices…the agencies that regulate migration have rich data and close links to policy formation, and national statistical offices have rigorous statistical expertise.”4
 There is also a need for much closer cooperation between countries since it is not uncommon for origin-country statistics and destination-country statistics about the size of the same migration flows to differ. While we need to be careful to keep in mind the limitations of using administrative data, for example data may not be comparable across countries because of the use of different concepts and definitions, there is considerable scope to learn more about migration using such data.

Make it easier to find and understand international migration data

More and more data on international migration is being produced by international agencies, academic groups and even companies such as Gallup. The creation of new datasets has helped to improve the availability, quality and comparability of data on international migration. For example, the UN Population Division, in collaboration with the UN Statistics Division, the World Bank and the University of Sussex, has developed the “Global Migration Database.” This has enabled the UN to produce estimates of migrant stocks disaggregated by age, sex, origin and destination, for 232 countries and areas in the world. Another example is the UNESCO Institute for statistics, with support from OECD and Eurostat, which has upgraded its database on the international mobility of tertiary-level students, collecting data on over 200 countries or areas classified by country of origin and sex. 

With so many new data initiatives, the challenge for policymakers and other users of data is how best to access and understand what migration data are available. In order to make this task easier IOM in collaboration with other UN agencies launched the Global Migration Data Portal in 2017. A key objective of the Portal is to help policymakers, researchers, the media and anyone interested in migration find and understand key sources of data on international migration. The Portal includes a user-friendly interactive world map, sections explaining the strengths and weaknesses of migration data by theme, and guide to data capacity-building tools on migration. Since it was launched the Global Migration Data Portal has received 1.7 million views and has 65,000 active monthly users. While this has been a good start, compiling and updating global sources of data on migration is a long-term task.

Use private sector data to inform migration policy

Innovations in technology and reductions in the cost of digital devices worldwide mean that digital data are being produced in real time, at an unprecedented rate. This means that a huge amount of data relevant to understanding migration and mobility is being increasingly produced by the private sector. One of the challenges that national authorities face is how best to work with the private sector to use such data to address migration policy challenges and opportunities. There are concrete examples of where “Big Data” have been used to improve policy responses. For example, analysing mobile phone data in Nepal helped to understand large movements of population following the earthquake that struck the country in 2015, contributing to more timely and effective responses by authorities and relief organizations, in the absence of official statistics. Other types of data, such as social media and search query data, have been used to understand aspects of migrant integration in cities across eight European Union Member States – from residential segregation to migrant well-being – through the Data Challenge on Integration of Migrants in Cities issued by the European Commission (IOM, 2018). While these are important examples of the potential of new data sources including Big Data, many policymakers are unsure how best to take advantage of this new information. Furthermore, most migration data capacity development programmes provide little training or guidance to policymakers on how best to leverage the potential of using Big Data. In response to this challenge the European Commission and IOM launched the BigData4Migration Alliance in 2018. This new Alliance is currently developing new guidance and training materials to help policymakers and national statistical offices understand better the potential of data innovation, and also some of the risks if effective data protection procedures and ethical safeguards are not in place. A new section of the Global Migration Data Portal will be launched in February 2020 which will provide a directory of information on existing applications of new data sources to understand human mobility and migration.

Concluding Remarks

The International Forum on Migration Statistics in Cairo this month provides an opportunity to make a stronger call for action to improve data on migration. While additional resources will be required to address many data gaps, there is much that can be done to promote the sharing, analysis and use of existing migration data.  Three examples of areas where action could be taken have been outlined. Investing in capacities to produce new data is very important but it is also important to invest in policymakers’ capacities to access and understand existing data.5
A key finding of a recent World Bank evaluation of data-capacity-building initiatives is that there is often too much emphasis on the production of data and not enough emphasis on building capacities to use existing data.  Many countries, for example, as mentioned earlier have produced country Migration Profiles in recent years which bring together in one place disparate sources of data on migration. However, relatively few countries have regularly updated these reports and used these findings to inform policy responses. At a time when resources for new data collection may be limited it makes sense to make better use of the data that already exists.


This blog post is part of the International Forum on Migration Statistics (IFMS) series on the Global Migration Data Portal. The second IFMS, organized by IOM, OECD and UN DESA will take place in Cairo on 19-21 January 2020. Find more information about the IFMS here.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) or the United Nations. Any designations employed and the presentation of material throughout the blog do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of IOM concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area, or of its authorities, or concerning its frontiers and boundaries.


  • 1Results from the UN Population and Development Inquiry – see Policy Brief 1, “SDG Indicator 10.7.2,” UN DESA, IOM, OECD, October 2019.
  • 2Figure refers to monthly active users, see IOM 2018, “Informing the Implementation of the Global Compact for Migration: Data Bulletin Series.”
  • 3“Migrants Count: Five Steps Toward Better Migration Data”, Centre for Global Development, May 2009.
  • 4Ibid.
  • 5World Bank 2018, “Data for Development: An Evaluation of World Bank Support for Data and Statistical Capacity”.

Other articles by this author on the Portal