The Global Dimensions of Female Migration
By Hania Zlotnik
March 1, 2003
Until the late 1970s, most writings on international migration either focused explicitly only on male migrants (usually conceived of as workers) or seemed to assume implicitly that most migrants were male. That assumption was particularly prevalent when attention was focused on the economic aspects of international migration, because it was widely believed that the participation of women in international labor migration was negligible.
Of course, such beliefs were rarely based on statistical evidence since, both then and now, data on international migrants often were not classified by sex. Consequently, when scholars began to call attention to the participation of women in international migration, one of their tasks was to refute those beliefs.
Until recently, a comprehensive set of global estimates permitting an assessment of the extent of female migration was not available. The first such set, containing estimates for the period 1965-1990, was released by the United Nations Population Division in 1998. Estimates at the country level were derived from the number of foreign-born persons enumerated by population censuses, complemented by information on the number of refugees. In 2002, the UN extended estimates of the overall number of migrants (both sexes combined) to 2000, setting the stage for a similar extension of the estimates by sex. As a result, it is now possible to trace the evolution of the number of female migrants from 1960 to 2000.
The main revelation of the new set of global estimates by sex is that women and girls have accounted for a very high proportion of all international migrants for a long time. Already in 1960, female migrants accounted for nearly 47 out of every 100 migrants living outside of their countries of birth. (See Table 1) Since then, the share of female migrants among all international migrants has been rising steadily, to reach 48 percent in 1990 and nearly 49 percent in 2000. Although this trend is consistent with an increasing 'feminization' of international migration, the increase recorded is small compared to the high level of feminization that already existed in 1960.
Table 1. Percentage of female migrants
among the total number of international migrants, by major area, 1960-2000
| More developed regions
| Less developed regions
|Eastern and South-eastern Asia
For more than 40 years, female migrants have been almost as numerous as male migrants. In 1960 there were 35 million female migrants and 40 million male migrants; by 2000, although the total number of migrants had more than doubled, the gap between females and males remained about the same, 85 million female migrants versus 90 million male migrants.
Female Migrants Claim Larger Proportion in Developed Countries
Female migrants have generally accounted for a larger fraction of the migrant stock in developed countries than in the developing world. In 1960, 48 percent of all migrants in developed countries were women or girls, whereas the equivalent proportion in developing countries was 46 percent.
By 2000 the difference between the two had risen further, since female migrants constituted nearly 51 percent of all migrants in the developed world and still accounted for about 46 percent of all international migrants in developing countries. The cause of these differences should be sought in the laws and regulations governing the admission of migrants in countries of destination and those governing their departure from countries of origin, in conjunction with the interplay of factors determining the status of women in countries of origin and countries of destination.
By permitting the family reunification of legally admitted migrants, developed countries facilitate the admission of migrant women. In addition, the social and economic situation of women in developed countries, where women have access to a variety of educational and employment opportunities, acts as a magnet for women wishing to be economic and social actors in their own right.
Developing Countries See Increase in Female Migration
In contrast, in the developing world, countries that are major receivers of international migrants generally admit them exclusively for labor purposes, and male migrants tend to predominate in labor migration flows. However, since the late 1970s, the participation of women in labor migration flows directed to developing countries has been increasing.
The major magnets for female labor migration are located in Western Asia among the oil-rich countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council and in the countries of the Pacific Rim in Eastern and Southeastern Asia. In both of those regions, the proportion of women among all international migrants has been rising steadily since 1980. By 2000, the number of female migrants was estimated to have surpassed the number of male migrants in Eastern and Southeastern Asia (5 million versus 4.9 million). The 7.6 million female migrants in Western Asia were estimated to constitute 48 percent of all migrants in that region.
It bears stressing that not all the female migrants in those regions are migrant workers. In the oil-producing countries of Western Asia, for instance, already by 1975 (before female contract migration became a major component of their migration flows) the number of female migrants was significant, amounting to 43 percent of the foreign population in Kuwait, 33 percent of that in Saudi Arabia, about 30 percent of that in Bahrain, and 20 percent of all foreign migrants in the United Arab Emirates. Most of those female migrants were probably admitted as dependents of male migrant workers, although some may have been hired as teachers or nurses, or to work in other occupations reserved for women.
Proportion of Women Migrants Parallels Refugee Increases in Africa
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of female migrants rose in parallel with the increasing numbers of refugees in the continent. In the early 1990s, when attention began to focus on the plight of female refugees, those involved in advocacy popularized the notion that 80 percent of all refugees were women and children. Because data on refugees classified by age and sex were not available, that estimate seemed plausible for the high-fertility countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, where women and children accounted for high proportions of the total population. (See article by Bela Hovy)
When the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began in the late 1990s to publish data on refugees classified by sex, female refugees in Africa turned out to account for about half of all assisted refugees, implying that they were not over-represented among the refugee population in the continent. In fact, in 2000, women and girls accounted for 47 percent of all migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa, a figure only slightly below the world average, and still indicating that men outnumbered women among migrants in the continent.
Regional Differences in the Migration of Women
Female migrants have been particularly under-represented among all migrants in Northern Africa and Southern Asia. In both regions, the proportion of female migrants has declined since 1970, partly because those regions have few magnets for international migrants. Most countries of Northern Africa are sources of emigrants rather than receivers. In Southern Asia, forced migration has led to very sizable flows within the region, but data on the sex composition of the migrant stock are scarce. Consequently, the estimated levels presented here may not accurately reflect the changes taking place in the share of female migration in the region.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, data on the stock of international migrants is abundant and the trend toward the increasing feminization of international migration is well established. It is particularly noteworthy that Latin America was the first region of the developing world to record parity in the number of female and male migrants: in 1990, three million of the region's six million international migrants were women. The number of migrants in the region is estimated to have declined during the 1990s, but by 2000 women still constituted slightly more than half of the five million migrants in the region.
Among the developed regions, Northern America, which includes Canada and the United States, is exceptional in that female migrants have outnumbered male migrants since 1970, but the female numerical advantage declined somewhat during the 1980s, largely as a result of the high levels of undocumented migration converging on the United States. As the regularization program carried out under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 revealed, women constituted a somewhat low proportion of all those regularized (34 percent). However, women have tended to outnumber men among all legally admitted immigrants.
Both Europe and Oceania have displayed an increasing proportion of female migrants since 1970. In Oceania, female migrants constituted slightly more than half of all migrants present in the region in 2000 (2.9 million out of 5.8 million). In Europe, female migrants became more numerous than male migrants were earlier. By 1990, nearly 52 percent of all migrants in Europe were women or girls (25 million out of 48 million).
These estimates, however, are dependent on the assumptions made about the percentage of women among the persons who became international migrants at the time of the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, because the estimates for 1990 already reflect the effects of that disintegration. Lacking data on the sex distribution of migrants in the successor states of the Soviet Union, it was assumed that Soviet migrants had the same composition by sex as the average of other European countries. As a result, Europe becomes the region where female migrants outnumbered male migrants by the widest margin in 2000. At that time, female migrants constituted 52 percent of the 56 million migrants in Europe.
In sum, the data amply demonstrate that globally, the number of female migrants has been large and increasing, both in terms of the sheer number of women involved and in terms of their share of the world's migrant stock. The majority of female migrants, like the majority of all migrants, are currently living in developed countries, particularly in Europe (29 million) and Northern America (20 million). In those countries, women often outnumber men among international migrants. In the developing world, the 32 million female migrants present in 2000 were still outnumbered by their male counterparts, but not by much. Clearly, female migration is a key constituent of global migration.
United Nations. 2002. International Migration Report: 2002.
Hania Zlotnik is Chief of the Population Estimates and Projections Section of the United Nations Population Division. The views and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations.
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