The Feminization of Migration: Limits of the Data

This is the third in a series of articles on the feminization of migration. Support for this series is provided by the Fred H. Bixby Foundation.

(February 2007) There currently are 191 million people around the world living in a country other than the one in which they were born.1 This number is equivalent to about 3 percent of the world’s population, or the fifth largest country in the world, if everyone lived in the same place. The number of migrants and the pace of migration both have increased since the 1960s.

Data collected by governments indicate that women now account for almost half of immigrants around the world, but the proportion of international migrants who are male or female varies substantially by country and region. Although some numbers are available on the status, employment, and remittance patterns of these female migrants, there are not enough data to answer key questions. These gaps need to be filled to assist with the development of evidence-based policies that would improve the migration experience for women and men, and for sending and destination countries.

Percentage of Female Migrants Among Total Number of International Migrants

Geographic Area 1960 1980 2000
World 46.6 47.4 48.8
More Developed Countries 47.9 49.4 50.9
Less Developed Countries 45.7 45.5 45.7
Europe 48.5 48.5 52.4
North America 49.8 52.6 51.0
Oceania 44.4 47.9 50.5
North Africa 49.5 45.8 42.8
Sub-Saharan Africa 40.6 43.8 47.2
Southern Asia 46.3 45.9 44.4
Eastern/Southeastern Asia 46.1 47.0 50.1
Western Asia 45.2 47.2 48.3
Caribbean 45.3 46.5 48.9
Latin America 44.7 48.4 50.5

Note: North Africa includes Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and nearby countries. Sub-Saharan Africa includes all African nations not in North Africa. Southern Asia includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and nearby countries. Eastern and Southeastern Asia includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and nearby countries. Western Asia includes Iraq, Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries.
Source: Hania Zlotnik, Global Dimensions of Female Migration (Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 2003)

As is common with international data, these numbers must be understood in context. Most data are collected by governments, which often use differing definitions of who is a migrant and who is a citizen. In countries with expansive notions of citizenship (such as the United States or Canada), children of immigrants born in that nation are granted citizenship. In other countries, children born to immigrant parents may be considered migrants because citizenship is derived from a parent’s nationality. In addition to this issue of varying definitions, many immigrant populations are undercounted because they include a large number of undocumented immigrants fearful of stepping forward for censuses and surveys.

Female Migrant Populations Vary

Although conventional wisdom had it that the vast majority of international migrants were male, recent assessments show that this does not describe global migration during the last half of the 20th century. In some countries, more than half of migrants are female.2 The female proportion is higher in countries that long have been open to immigration, including the United States, Canada, and Australia. For example, 54 percent of recent legal immigrants to the United States are women, in part because they are more likely to be migrating spouses. In countries that permit only temporary migration, the proportion of men may be higher, particularly if admission is limited to certain types of occupations typically dominated by men, such as miners or information-technology workers.

Sending countries also differ in the percent of women and men who emigrate, in part because of differential demand for labor in the countries to which they move. For example, 70 percent of all Filipino labor migrants are women.3 In Mexico, on the other hand, 69 percent of emigrants are men.4

Much of the available data is not disaggregated by age and sex, and thus can shed little light on the impact of the growing feminization of migration–that is, the increasing tendency of women to move for economic reasons rather than because of family ties. For example, a recent surge of publications about women and migration is unable to answer the question of whether migration is good for women. Is it empowering, safe, and life-enhancing?5 The answer is always: It depends.

It depends, for example, on whether the women are legal migrants, whether they are educated, whether they are caught in a poverty trap, whether they have support at home for their children or elderly parents, and whether employers operate in a legal environment designed to protect their human rights. There are individual examples to provide evidence about these topics, although various reports often cite the same one or two studies. But there is not enough hard evidence that would help prioritize immigration policy choices in any one sending or destination country.

The Status of Female Migrants

Most migrants are legal: They move from their birth countries because of work or family ties, with legal “permission” from sending and destination countries, or they arrive as refugees.6 However, an estimated 15 percent to 20 percent of the world’s immigrants are unauthorized, roughly 30 million to 40 million people.

There are few global data on the percentage of undocumented migrants who are female, although it is thought that women are a minority. For example, in the U.S., which is estimated to host more than 10 million undocumented immigrants, one recent study shows that 58 percent of the adults were male while 42 percent were female.7

Employment: Female Migrants Sometimes Exploited

There are more than 86 million economically active migrants around the world, two-thirds of whom have moved from developing to developed countries.8 Migrants from developing countries tend to concentrate at the bottom and the top of the employment ladder.

The International Labour Organization provides significant evidence of the feminization of labor migration, a trend most evident in Asia, where hundreds of thousands of women emigrate each year. The main sending countries are Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand, while the main destinations are Hong Kong (China), Malaysia, Singapore, and the Middle East.

Many Asian migrants are teachers and nurses, but even more are employed as domestic workers or are recruited to work in “sweatshops.” Sweatshops have increased because of the globalization of international brands of garments, shoes, toys and sports equipment. Working conditions are often poor. For example, on Saipan (in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, administered by the United States), more than 50,000 young female migrants from China, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and Thailand were discovered working as virtual prisoners in workshops. They were forced to labor 15 hours a day, seven days a week.9

Remittances: Why Women Send Money

Clearly, many people migrate to earn a higher income, part of which they often send to their countries of origin. Labor migration and the remittances associated with it play a major role in the global economy. In 2005, remittance flows are estimated to have exceeded $233 billion worldwide. Of that, $167 billion went to developing countries, representing twice as much money as official development assistance.10

However, the gender perspective has barely been considered in studies on patterns of remittances, transfer channels, use of remittances, and their potential for development. A recent report by the United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women suggests that women’s patterns of remittance will vary depending on why they have migrated:11

  • Household providers. This describes most women who send remittances. They may work long hours in hazardous jobs to earn as much money as possible to send home.
  • Movers by choice, not financial need. They probably remit less, and when they do it may be to support family investments, such as paying for their siblings’ school fees.
  • Dependents. They probably do not contribute much to remittance flows.

The available data tell a powerful but broad story of movement and the feminization of migration. The next step must be to add analysis to identify in a strategic way how many women are experiencing an empowering migration process and why, and how many are having a negative experience and why.

Nancy V. Yinger was director of International Programs at the Population Reference Bureau from January 2000 to June 2006.


  1. Data from International Organization for Migration (IOM),, accessed on Feb. 7, 2007.
  2. Data from International Labour Organization (ILO),, accessed on Feb. 7, 2007. The ILO database offers some country data on immigrants by gender.
  3. Lauren B. Engle, The World In Motion: Short Essays on Migration and Gender (Geneva: International Organization for Migration, 2004.
  4. Data from ILO.
  5. See, for example: UNFPA, “A Passage to Hope: Women and International Migration,” in State of the World’s Population 2006 (New York: UNFPA, 2006); International Organization for Migration (IOM), Female Migrants: Bridging the Gaps Throughout the Life Cycle (Geneva: IOM, 2006); Nicola Piper, Gender and Migration (Geneva: Global Commission on International Migration, 2005); Susan Forbes Martin, “Women and Migration,” presented at the Consultative Meeting on Migration and Mobility and How the Movement Affects Women, United Nations, Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), in Malmo, Sweden, Dec. 2-4, 2003; Engle, The World in Motion; United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2004 World Survey on the Role of Women in Development: Women and International Migration (New York: United Nations, 2005); and Susie Jolly with Hazel Reeves, Gender and Migration: Overview Report (Brighton, U.K.: BRIDGE, Institute of Development Studies, 2005).
  6. Martin, Women and Migration. Martin states that adult women outnumber adult men among refugees, but that men are more likely to seek asylum.
  7. Richard Fry, Gender and Migration (Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, 2006.
  8. ILO, Towards a Fair Deal for Migrant Workers in the Global Economy, International Labour Conference, 92nd Session, Report VI 2004.
  9. ILO, Towards a Fair Deal for Migrant Workers in the Global Economy.
  10. World Bank, Global Development Finance 2003 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2003); and World Bank, Global Development Finance 2004 (Washington, DC: World Bank, 2004.
  11. Carlota Ramirez, Mar Garcia Dominguez, and Julia Miguez Morais, Crossing Borders: Remittances, Gender and Development, June 2005 Working Paper (New York: The United Nations International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, 2005).