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One-Quarter of World’s Population May Wish to Migrate

One-Quarter of World’s Population May Wish to Migrate

Common thread worldwide is a connection to others who live abroad

by Gerver Torres and Brett Pelham

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Ideally, if you had the opportunity, would you like to move permanently to another country? Gallup Polls conducted worldwide between 2006 and 2008 reveal that more than one in every four people polled report a desire to move abroad.

Specifically, across the 82 countries where Gallup asked this question, the median percentage saying they would like to move abroad was 26%. Although there are many reasons why people migrate, this percentage suggests that a substantial proportion of the earth's population may not be happy living where they now live. Worldwide, the percentage of people saying they would like to migrate varied a great deal. At one extreme, there are countries such as Sierra Leone, Guyana, Congo (Kinshasa), and Nigeria, where more than half of those surveyed say they want to emigrate. At the other extreme, there are countries such as Saudi Arabia, Australia, Thailand, and South Africa, where only a small minority of respondents say they want to emigrate. In Saudi Arabia, one must comb the desert sands to find those who report a desire to move elsewhere. Only 1% of Saudis say they would like to move permanently to another country.

Ties That Bind

The Gallup Polls also offer new insights into why people want to emigrate. Many people believe that young, single, poor men are especially interested in moving abroad, usually in search of a better income. Although the polls somewhat support this conventional view, one of the strongest predictors of people's desire to permanently move to another country is more interpersonal than economic. Across the world, people who report that they have a friend or relative currently living abroad are more likely to say they would move to another country (38%) than those who did not report that they have a friend or relative currently living abroad (25%).

In Latin America, Gallup not only asked respondents whether they would like to move abroad, but also if they actually planned to do so and whether they had routinely received remittances (cash aid) from relatives living abroad. The receipt of such remittances proved to be a strong predictor of people's plans to emigrate. In Latin America, only 15% of those not receiving remittances planned to move abroad. This figure more than doubled, to 31%, among those receiving remittances.

These new findings make social as well as economic sense. We could assume that people who receive remittances also receive three powerful messages. One likely message is that those who send money are doing well economically. A second message is that if recipients were to move to another country, they too could do well economically. Finally, receiving remittances may provide potential émigrés with a personal as well as a financial safety net, making the enormous leap of faith required to move abroad seem less intimidating.

The United Nations estimates there are nearly 200 million people living outside their country of origin. According to a World Bank study, these people send about $300 billion per year to their relatives in their home countries. By better understanding the forces fueling desires to migrate, and the consequences thereof, policy-makers and business leaders will be better equipped to address the causes and effects of this key economic phenomenon of the 21st century.

Survey Methods

Results are based on telephone and face-to-face interviews conducted between 2006 and 2008 with approximately 1,000 adults per country. Confidence intervals for the percentage of respondents desiring to migrate varied from country to country based on the extremity of the findings and sample sizes. However, the typical 95% confidence range for desire to migrate in these 70 countries was +2 percentage points. Because of smaller sample sizes in Guyana (n = 478) and Belize (n = 408), the respective 95% confidence intervals for these countries were +4 and +5 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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