The Top Destinations for Global Migrants: The United States and Qatar

The United States receives a large number of immigrants – about 1 million annually who hail from all over the world – and because of its historic draw is often described as traditional country of immigration.

In fact, today the country is the world's top destination for global migrants who come to increase economic, educational, and social opportunities for themselves and their families. According to the latest United Nations estimates, more than 42 million international migrants live in the United States. The number of international migrants in the United States is larger than the next four top destinations –Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Canada– combined.

To put it in context, the US population accounts for about 5 percent of the world's total population, but it is home to 20 percent of the world's 214 million migrants (based on the United Nation's 2010 estimates).

Proportion-wise, however, the story is quite different. The share that migrants represent in the total population in many other immigrant host countries exceeds that of the United States (which was about 13 percent in 2010). In another traditional country of immigration, New Zealand, more than 22 percent of the population was born abroad. In Israel, a country that has experienced several successive waves of immigration since its formation in 1948, more than 40 percent of the total population is comprised of international migrants. (Both New Zealand and Israel are among the top ten destinations with the highest share that migrants represent in their populations.) The country that claims the top spot on this list is Qatar – international migrants represent nearly 87 percent (or 1.3 million) of the 1.5 million residents in this small Gulf nation.

Top Ten Countries with the Largest

Number of International Migrants

(in thousands, 2010*)


Number of international migrants

Share of all international migrants (%)














 United Kingdom












 Saudi Arabia








 Russian Federation




 United States




Top 10 Total








Source: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Trends in International Migrant Stock: The 2008 Revision, UN database, (New York: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, 2009),

Notes: * Projected by the UN Population Division. As countries collect statistics on immigrants in varying ways, it is often difficult to harmonize them across countries; differences in counting deeply affect rank orders.


The two top global destinations numerically and by population share – the United States and Qatar, respectively – are vastly different not only in migration scale but also in terms of the main goals of their migration policies. Here's a brief comparative overview:


Similar to other Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Qatar admits migrants to meet labor shortages mostly in construction, manufacturing, service, and other low-skilled – and generally low-paid – jobs. The overwhelming majority of migrants in Qatar are young men from South and East Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Nepal, and the Philippines. These migrants are admitted as temporary, contract-based workers with little prospects for permanent settlement and citizenship. Female migrant workers (e.g., from the Philippines and Indonesia) are typically employed in the domestic sector as well as in education and health care (though on a smaller scale). While the majority of migrant workers are brought to fill low-skilled positions, some are professionals and specialists in private companies and education.

United States:

Similar to other traditional immigration countries such as Canada and Australia, the United States has both permanent and temporary migration routes. The lion's share of all US immigrants (about two-thirds) who arrive for permanent settlement comes as spouses, children, parents, and siblings of relatives already in the United States, whether citizen or lawful permanent resident. More than half of all immigrants in the United States are from Latin America (Mexico, Central America, and South America) and more than one-quarter are from Asia (mostly from China, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam). The United States has numerous low- and high-skill temporary visa programs, and hosts close to 900,000 international students and scholars.

The age and gender composition of migrant populations in the United States and Qatar are also different.

Check out our new chart that shows that while the shares of working-age migrant populations are large and similar in both countries (around 80 percent), 11 percent of US migrants are elderly (65 and older) compared to only 1 percent in Qatar. On the other hand, the share of children and young adults among international migrants in Qatar is twice as high compared to the United States (18 percent versus 9 percent).

There are also marked gender differences among the working-age populations of international migrants in the United States and Qatar. While women make up roughly half of the migrant population in each of the three age groups (under 20, 20 to 64, and 65 and older) in the United States, they account for only 20 percent among working-age migrants in Qatar, highlighting the desire for low-skilled male labor in Qatar as well as the cultural norms that discourage participation of women in the labor force.


Migration Policy Institute (MPI).


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