Older persons and migration
It is important to collect, process and report data on older persons in the migration context to improve policy and planning. These endeavors will also support the achievement of ageing-related United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as protecting the human rights of all people of all ages by “leaving no one behind”, and the commitment to address issues of ageing in the 21st century in the UN Decade of Healthy Ageing, which is based on the Global Strategy and Action Plan on Ageing and Health, and builds on the Political Declaration and Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing.
Currently, several migration data sources provide migration data disaggregated by age. Nevertheless, given the extensive attention to help the most vulnerable groups of migrants, namely women and children, data on the older migrant population are only occasionally prepared and used. Collecting and disaggregating migration data by age is not sufficient to tackle the challenges faced by older people in a migration context. Older persons in migration contexts are at risk of being overlooked, which might perpetuate vulnerabilities and inequalities. In addition, there is a lack of data on older persons left behind and their needs.
Operational definition of older person:
The United Nations uses chronological age to determine age groups, typically defining an “older person” as being aged 60 or 65 years and older (UN DESA, 2020).
Chronological definition of older person:
The UN definition for older person is not uniformly used by all governments and statistical agencies across the globe, since national practices differ. The commonly used definition of “older person” in Western countries is associated with the age at which one begins to receive pension benefits. Most high-income countries use 65+ years to define “older persons”. This age threshold is arbitrary because pension schemes mostly use 60-65 years for eligibility (Roebuck, 1979). However, the definitions differ in other regional contexts. For example, traditional African definitions of an elder or elderly person would correlate with the age of 50 or 55 years old, depending on the country. and setting, although establishing this can be difficult in Africa, where birth dates aren’t always known or recorded (Kowal and Dowd, 2001). Thus, the definition of “older person” varies from country to country and between organizations.
Socio-culturally constructed definition of older person:
Besides the chronological definition that is based on the age at which one begins to receive pensions benefits, there is also a socio-culturally constructed definition of “older person” that is based on the change in social roles (alterations in work patterns, family status - becoming a grandparent) and change in appearance or capabilities (such as senility or change in physical characteristics) (Glascock, 1980, UNHCR, 2020). However, the socio-culturally constructed definition of “older person” is difficult to incorporate into official statistics. Older persons who fall into this definition, e.g. a 59-year old migrant whose social role has changed because of senility, are counted in the incorrect major age category (for example, working age category: 19-64) in migration statistics and hence their needs are overlooked in policy making and planning.
The following general definitions are used in this thematic page:
Older migrant is any foreign-born person who either moved to the country of destination via, for example, a family reunification programme, at age 65 or older, moved in the past and then reached the retirement age in the country of destination, or was displaced by conflict at 65 age older or reached retirement age while displaced.
Elderly people in the OECD are defined as people aged 65 and over.
Age-disaggregated data are any data on individuals (e.g. data on foreign-born) broken down by age. It is important to know age in migration data to reveal inequalities, monitor progress and inform policy makers on the age dynamics of migration processes.
Older migrants comprised an estimated 34.3 million or 12.2 per cent of the international migrant stock at mid-year 2020 (UN DESA, 2020). This estimate is calculated using the foreign-born or foreign population as a proxy for international migrants and disaggregating by age. From mid-1990 to mid-2020, the percentage distribution of older migrants in the total international migrant stock remained stable at around 12 per cent. The estimated number of older migrants aged 65 or above in high- and middle- income countries increased by nearly 16 million from mid-1990 to mid-2020, while in low-income countries, it only increased by 76,587 (ibid.). Shares of international migrants by age vary in the total population across countries, regions and income groups. In destination countries with lower fertility rates, migrants may constitute a larger proportion of children and adolescents, whilst in many countries, migrants comprise a large share of the working-age population. In destination countries where migrants tend to stay through working age and into retirement, the average age of the immigrant population may be higher than the national average, partly because their children are not classified as migrants (UN DESA, 2020).
Globally, the number of female older migrants outnumber male older migrants. Women accounted for 56 per cent of all international migrants aged 65 or older. The estimated share of female migrants among all older migrants in 2020 was higher in high- and middle- income countries, namely 56 per cent compared to 52 per cent in low-income countries (ibid.). At mid-year 2020, female older migrants represented 6.8 per cent of all international migrants, while male older migrants represented 5.4 per cent (ibid.). The higher share of females among older migrants is due to the fact that older female migrants tend to outlive older male migrants, similar to trends in the general population.
In most OECD and EU countries, though foreign-born populations are getting older, the foreign-born population is ageing slower than the native-born population (OECD, 2023). In the last decade, the percentage of native-born elderly people in the OECD increased in all countries, but the percentage of foreign-born elderly increased in only two-thirds of countries (ibid.). Additionally, in the OECD, older people (those over 65 years of age) account for a higher share of the native-born population than the foreign-born population (18% and 15% respectively)(ibid.). In the EU, the same applies, but the difference in the shares is larger (21% in the native-born population and 15% in the foreign-born population) (ibid.). The share of elderly migrants in the OECD is lowest in countries, such as in Latin America, where immigration is comparatively more recent. It is highest where situations such as border changes, nation-building and national minorities shape the foreign-born population, such as in the Baltic countries (ibid.).
In most countries, especially those with a long history of immigration such as the USA, Southern Europe (but not Portugal), elderly migrants of all levels of education are more likely than their native-born peers to live in poverty (ibid.). In the EU, 26 per cent of elderly people and 28 per cent of very old migrants (aged 75+) live in relative poverty, a higher share than their native-born peers (19% and 22% respectively) (ibid.). In contrast, in countries attracting wealthy retirees including Malta and Cyprus, the foreign-born elderly are less likely to be poor than the native-born elderly. Over the last 10 years, the rate of poverty in the foreign-born elderly population in the EU and OECD has increased by approximately 4 percentage points, while the poverty rate has decreased slightly among the native-born elderly (ibid.).
Data on older persons and migration, like migration information more generally, are collected through national population censuses, administrative registers (such as population registers, registers of foreigners and other special registers covering, for example, asylum seekers), household surveys, national surveys, individual surveys on a micro scale and qualitative studies.
The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) consolidates data on the foreign-born or the foreign population by age, sex and origin into an international migrant stock dataset. Data on migrants are also available in the 65 or older age category. This age category is broken down into the following age sub-categories: 65-69, 70-74 and 75+ years.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has a database on Immigrants in OECD and non-OECD Countries (DIOC-E) that provides data for 100 destination countries and more than 200 countries of origin. Data are broken down by seven core variables: age, sex, duration of stay, labour market outcomes, field of study, place of birth and educational attainment. The latest data for DIOC-E-2010 were primarily based on data from the 2010 census round.
Eurostat, the Statistical Office of the European Union, has a database on Population and Social Conditions which consolidates a dataset on asylum and managed migration from the EU Member States’ interior ministries, immigration agencies and National Statistical Offices. The dataset presents data on asylum and residence permits and the enforcement of immigration legislation. Data are partially disaggregated by age.
HelpAge International’s Global AgeWatch Index integrates internationally comparable data from sources including the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the World Health Organisation, UN DESA, and the International Labour Organization. This index measures the well-being of older persons. The latest Global AgeWatch insight report was in 2018, with more recent reports covering Viet Nam and Tanzania. Although the Global AgeWatch index does not include an indicator that addresses the impact of urbanization and migration on the livelihoods of older persons left alone in the home village/country, HelpAge international has a consolidated list of empirical research evidence on the consequences of migration on those left behind in multigenerational households, based on individual surveys conducted in several origin countries.
The Oxford Institute of Population Ageing conducts research on population ageing in relation to migration, among other themes. The Institute's research is implemented by partner networks in Africa (AFRAN), Latin America (LARNA) and Central and Eastern Europe (EAST). The institute has a repository of research reports based on the analysis of data compiled via the Global Ageing Survey 2005-2008 (GLAS) and qualitative studies.
Beyond data collected via traditional methods, advanced technology has the potential to provide more nuanced information. For example, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) created virtual accounts using Blockchain technology for beneficiaries in the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan to upload monthly allowances to spend in the camp’s supermarket using an authorization code (Solon Ardittis, 2018). Scrutinizing the consumer behaviour of beneficiaries - in compliance with data protection principles - and combining these data with age-disaggregated survey data has the potential to address older persons’ actual needs.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
Harnessing the power of older age in the context of migration is essential to deconstruct the longstanding global narrative of ageing as a burden or older persons as passive agents of development. However, despite the acknowledged necessity to improve the quality, consistency and use of older cohorts of age-disaggregated data, too little is known about the situation of older migrants and older persons affected by demographic transformations. Data are limited due to the following challenges:
Estimates on older persons and older migrants are available, but data are not comprehensive for all countries and areas of the world. For example, millions of older persons are not included in the internationally comparable datasets because data are missing in some countries of Africa, the Middle East, the Caribbean and the Pacific (HelpAge International, 2015). These countries either have limited or no capacities to collect and disaggregate data by age. Therefore, the size of the older population is still incomplete.
In the wake of extensive funding allocations to help “the most” vulnerable, namely children and women, older persons are often overlooked in policy and development programmes, even when they are counted in official statistics. Statistics alone are not sufficient to address the needs of older migrants and older persons left behind; policy makers and the development community also need to perceive older persons in migration processes as an equally important group as women and children.
There are also limitations in data collection methods in shelters for IDPs. Notwithstanding the apparent fact that the needs of older internally displaced people differ in terms of medical treatment, psycho-social support and nutrition, data are only occasionally collected separately for all age categories (ibid.). In addition, very little is known about the movement of internally displaced older persons from rural to urban settings.
There is relatively little research on migration and ageing, especially on the situations of older persons in south-south migration and the social costs of older persons left behind by migrants. Studies on scrutinizing policy responses to later-life migration are essential to reach the furthest behind first (UNFPA, 2011).
Data on older irregular migrants are not generally available. Therefore, it is essential to encourage more ethnographic studies to build an evidence base and hence gain a better understanding of the older age dynamics of irregular migration.
2023 Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2023: Settling in. Chapter 6: Integration of the elderly immigrant population. OECD Publishing, Paris.
2022 Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The inclusion and use of data on older people in the humanitarian programme cycle. HelpAge International, London.
2017 Ageing, Older Persons, and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, UN DESA and HelpAge International, New York.
HelpAge International and Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
2012 The Neglected Generation: The Impact of Displacement on Older People, HelpAge International and IDMC, London.
HelpAge International and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)
2010 Staying Behind: The Effects of Migration on Older People and Children in Moldova, HelpAge International and UNICEF, Brussels.
International Monetary Fund (IMF)
2018 World Economic Outlook: Cyclical Upspring, Structural Change, International Monetary Fund, Washington.
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)
2016 Migration and Older Age, UNECE, Geneva.
2017 Older People in Situations of Migration in Africa: The Untold Migration Story, Samuel Hall, Berlin.
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
2013 Working with Older People in Forced Displacement, UNHCR, Geneva.
Dwyer, P. and Papadimitriou, D.
2011 Current Status of the Social Situation, Well-Being, Participation in Development and Rights of Older people Worldwide, UN DESA, New York.
World Health Organization (WHO)
2008 Older People in Emergencies: Considerations for Action and Policy Development, WHO, France.
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