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What headlines don’t tell you about global migration, and what Stanford researchers can

Researchers are filling critical migration data gaps and studying how people are on the move in new and different ways.

More people than ever live outside the country of their birth—281,000,000 migrants.1 To put it in perspective, if migrants formed their own country, it would be the fourth most populous country in the world, after China, India, and the United States. But why did they leave their home? Where are they going? Do they plan to return? Can they? Where would they be most likely to thrive?  

Planning for Productive Migration program trainer reviewing class design on decision making map for migrants. Credit: Mercy Corps Niger, 2023

Stanford researchers affiliated with the King Center on Global Development—who represent departments and initiatives across the university—are at the forefront of research that seeks to answer those questions and many more. As Stanford’s multidisciplinary hub on global development, the King Center supports research on nine global themes, including migration. The center’s Migration and Development Initiative (MDI)—run by the Immigration Policy Lab (IPL) and led by Stanford Professor Jeremy Weinstein—collaborates with government and NGO partners to explore policy issues around migration in the Global South, including by filling in massive data gaps, studying existing efforts to match migrants to opportunities around the world, predicting where immigrants are most likely to thrive, and documenting migrant experiences.

The aim of all these efforts is to improve existing laws and policies governing migration, and to better understand how people are on the move in new and different ways.

“Robust research on global migration is paramount in shaping the future of migration governance,” says Jessica Leino, Executive Director of the King Center. “ It not only illuminates the realities faced by migrants but also equips policymakers and NGOs with insights needed to navigate the complex challenges of migration management. Research allows us to pave the way for informed decisions in host countries and countries of origin."

Researchers Take Stock: Why People Migrate & How Governments React   

Credit: Omri Eliyahu, 2022

Immigrants are often painted with a broad brush, but people’s reasons for moving—and the types of people moving—are more diverse than ever. A migrant is a person who has left their home by choice in search of better opportunities, while an asylum seeker is someone who is seeking protection from dangers in his or her home country (and a refugee has been granted protection in another country). People are leaving their countries because of economic pressures, changing demographics, conflict, and environmental stressors, all of which are likely to intensify in the coming years.  

“The drivers and reasons for migration are becoming increasingly blurred; it's harder now than ever to make exclusive categories of migration,” explains Jessica Sadye Wolff, Program Director at IPL and manager of the King Center’s MDI initiative. “It's a lot harder to say: This person is fleeing conflict; this person is looking for economic opportunity; this person was flooded out.” 

One objective of MDI is to systematically document asylum and refugee policies over time and across countries. The Developing World Refugee and Asylum Policy (DWRAP) database will document migration policies globally, with an initial version capturing data from more than 92 developing countries and 229 domestic laws relating to forced displacement across the Global South, dating back to 1951. The DWRAP project is led by Professor Jeremy Weinstein at Stanford, Professor Guy Grossman at University of Pennsylvania, and Assistant Professor Christopher Blair at Princeton University. By mapping developing-world asylum policies, the initiative nearly doubles the data on policy indices and provides critical information on the developing countries that bear the overwhelming burden of hosting 85% of the planet’s forcibly displaced people.2 The team is now extending the database to cover every country in the world.

“There's a plethora of policy indexes around migration, asylum, and refugee policy in North America and Europe,” explains Sadye Wolff. “Yet there are very few resources with that information for other regions of the world, particularly in low and middle income countries where a majority of displacement occurs.” 

Most Migrants are Moving Between Countries in The Developing World—South to South 

Although mainstream media outlets almost exclusively cover undocumented immigrants in the United States and Europe, a third of the world’s migrants move between neighboring countries, mostly within the developing world.3

Credit: Jozua Douglas, 2018

Countries in the Global South—a term for countries seeking to become more economically and socially competitive—host at least 40 percent of all international migrants. For instance, almost 70 percent of all African migrants reside in other African countries. Latin America and the Caribbean have the fastest-growing international migrant population; Colombia and Peru, specifically, are home to more than half of the five million people who have fled Venezuela.4 

By studying 88,000 surveys from West and Central African migrants, taken in 36 transit hubs across six countries, Wolff and her team saw that most individuals aimed to remain in the region. "We found that 89% of people on the move in West and Central Africa intend to migrate to another country within Africa and are not interested in heading towards Europe and North America,” says Sadye Wolff of MDI’s research done with survey data from the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM).

South-south migration is taking place in significant numbers not just between nations, but also within origin countries. More than 59 million people are currently displaced within their own countries—uprooted by conflict, violence, and disasters.5 Despite these trends, there is a lack of data on south-south migration that makes understanding this broader movement challenging. 

Stanford political science PhD student and King Center funding recipient Mae MacDonald, is providing new data by using novel satellite imagery tools to analyze the borders and infrastructure of refugee camps around the world, gathering data on whether host countries choose to keep particular refugee groups in camps, or integrate them into the social and economic fabric of society.

Net Positive: Immigrants Benefit Economies, in Both Receiving and Origin Countries 

Although there can be upfront costs to host countries in accepting migrants, the long-term economic benefits outweigh the costs. “Make no mistake, there is an economic cost to welcoming refugees,” explained former Stanford Knight-Hennessy scholar Andrew Leon Hanna, at a book talk at the King Center. In his book 25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs, he explains, “But that investment easily reaps dividends in the form of business growth, increased hiring, higher spending, a broader tax base, and beyond.”6

Stanford Economics Professor Ran Abramitzky, in his book Streets of Gold co-authored with Leah Boustan, explains that children of immigrants are among the most productive fiscal contributors. “Even immigrants who come to the US with few resources or skills bring an asset that is hugely beneficial to the US economy: their children,” Abramitzky says. “The rapid success of immigrants' children more than pays for the debts of their parents.”  

Credit: Dear Jeanne, 2023

Entrepreneurial activity by refugees, in particular, is attracting the growing attention of researchers and policy-makers. King Center-supported research by Stanford Management Science and Engineering’s Professor Charles Eesley and PhD candidate Zahra Hejrati seeks to improve outcomes for refugee entrepreneurs. The pair is co-running a study examining how mentorship and local connections impact refugee entrepreneurs’ experience in Uganda. Participants’ startup ideas stem from their own personal experiences: One created a nutrient-fortified flour to protect children from malnutrition; another developed an organic mosquito repellent; someone else wanted to launch a comedy production venture to ward off boredom and depression in refugee camps. “In Silicon Valley startups, people are often searching for the ‘why,’” explained Faith Zehfuss, ’24 who traveled to Uganda as a King Center undergraduate research fellow. “That was never a question for these refugees. They have obvious problems that they are personally engaged with and need to solve.”

Lawful—and Mutually Beneficial—Migration Pathways Work

What if mobility across borders was aligned with temporary and seasonal work demands, and was leveraged rather than discouraged? High income countries have the opportunity to learn from successful open movement agreements currently being used in low and middle income countries.

In West Africa, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) allows residents from member states to stay and work in neighboring countries for 90 days, in an effort to encourage safe, legal, and productive migration. The agreement covers 15 countries and an estimated 424 million people. Working within West Africa’s open movement agreement, the Planning for Productive Migration (PPM) program helps Nigerien migrants safely and legally increase their incomes through temporary, seasonal migration to larger cities or neighboring countries. Designed by a team of researchers affiliated with IPL working in partnership with Mercy Corps Niger, the program helps people move in a circular fashion between countries, fulfilling labor needs and generating income for migrant workers. “PPM is really testing and evaluating if we can alleviate barriers to short-term or seasonal migration,” explains Sadye Wolff. “This opportunity supports folks seeking economic migration from pressures like climate change, which are making agricultural livelihoods less and less viable.” 

Credit: Peggy Marco, 2015

Economics and Political Science professors Melanie Morten and Beatriz Magaloni are studying the United States’ version of a seasonal work agreement through the Guestworker Migration Initiative, another King Center endeavor. The United States’ H-2A seasonal migrant worker program, created in 1986, allows U.S. employers who meet specific regulatory requirements to bring in foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs. Professors Magaloni and Morten have teamed up to work on the first-ever randomized control trial of the H-2A program; their research will provide empirical evidence about the benefits and costs of the program in the context of migration from Mexico to the US. 

Another IPL project that may help efforts to efficiently direct migrants to places that need them uses machine learning to predict where people are most likely to contribute to their new communities. Using information on past immigrants and their experiences, the algorithm-based tool combines an immigrant’s work history, education, and personal characteristics to reveal how different places might make them more or less likely to succeed. GeoMatch predicts a new immigrant’s probability of success at a range of locations within the destination country.

“Channels for migration have to be built with hammer and nails and design and innovation,” explains Michael Clemens, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, who recently spoke at a King Center panel discussion on migration. “It takes an enormous amount of work by people like us—partner countries, NGOs, agencies, governments—all coordinating together to figure out how to make that happen in a way that is administratively feasible. It takes investment. It's a hard thing to do. It's not just about opening the door.”

We Can Learn From Migrants

One obvious starting point in thinking about how to improve immigration systems around the world is to learn from migrants themselves. Stanford researchers supported by the King Center are exploring all aspects of migrants’ journeys: the decision to move, and where and how; integration into the host community; vulnerabilities and abuse; and when and why immigrants return home. 

“Migration combines the individual and the structural—on the one hand, it's totally about individuals, people's choices, how they want to live their lives and what they aim to pursue,” explains Hannah Postel, a Stanford postdoctoral scholar who received funding from the King Center for her research on migration aspirations among Africans. “On the other hand, migration is also determined by global international relations and policies.” 

Pei Palmgren, a Stanford Sociology postdoctoral scholar, received funding from the King Center for his work on migrants from Myanmar. He is exploring how these migrants, who work in Thailand, make choices about accessing health care, child care, and other critical types of social assistance. His findings will help inform government and NGO advocacy efforts to protect vulnerable migrants. 

Credit: Paul Prescott, 2015 

In order to understand immigrants’ decisions about how to navigate the challenges they face, MDI and IPL are creating and employing digital tools. A WhatsApp-based survey tool monitors immigrant journeys in real time. Researchers are also using a digital survey tool to learn about Venezuelan migrants' well-being and integration in Colombia. A similar app allows researchers to stay in touch with 3,000 Syrians living in Lebanon, tracking their movement and studying how their migration plans evolve. The research results from Lebanon data reveal whether refugees want to go back to Syria, and if so, when and how. These findings can help inform the humanitarian and policy response to future refugee crises.  


“We need to think about normalizing the fact that migration is as natural as births and deaths, that it's always been a factor of life and it will continue to be,” explains Postel. “The sooner that we're able to accept that it's going to happen, and it's not about stopping it from happening, it's really about shaping it in the best way for all people involved.” 

As migration governance becomes increasingly urgent and complex, the analysis and real-time information that researchers and scholars are contributing is essential for shaping informed policy and aid decisions. Scholars are helping define how countries will be able to coordinate and plan for migration — and better prepare for an uncertain future with a planet on the move.

1 United Nations Human Rights Office of The High Commissioner, OHCHR and Migration,

2Christopher W. Blair, Guy Grossman & Jeremy M. Weinstein, Forced Displacement and Asylum Policy in the Developing World, International Organization (2022).

3Anusha Natarajan, Mohamad Moslimani & Mark Hugo Lopez, Key facts about recent trends in global migration, Pew Research Center (Dec 16, 2022),

4Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Intelligence Council, Deeper Looks: The Future of Migration (2021)…; Anusha Natarajan, Mohamad Moslimani & Mark Hugo Lopez, Key facts about recent trends in global migration, Pew Research Center (Dec 16, 2022),

5International Organization for Migration, Internal Displacement,

6Andrew Leon Hanna, 25 Million Sparks: The Untold Story of Refugee Entrepreneurs (2022) Cambridge University Press.