1. The geography of migration across OECD regions and cities

The integration of migrants remains one of the most relevant and pressing policy challenges in many OECD countries. While migration and the size of migrant communities differ across countries, regional differences within countries also tend to be significant. Therefore, designing effective migrant integration policies requires precise and adequate subnational data. Subnational data on migrants’ presence and their labour outcomes do not only offer insights on geographic differences but also enable an empirical assessment of existing challenges. Finally, subnational data on migrants can help evaluate policies and the impact of changes in integration measures.

This chapter builds on and extends recent OECD efforts to analyse the subnational geography of migration in OECD countries (Diaz Ramirez et al., 2018[1]). It significantly expands the empirical scope of regional data for TL2 OECD regions on migrants’ presence and their demographic background (for a definition of TL2 regions, see Box 1.1). While previous efforts were restricted to one (2015) or two (2005, 2015) points in time for the presence of migrants, this chapter is based on new comprehensive data collection efforts. Drawing on various labour force surveys as well as other sources, most derived indicators cover annual regional observations for the period of 2010-19, reaching back as far as 2000 for data on the presence of migrants (Box 1.2).

Overall, the remainder of the chapter presents new evidence on three dimensions related to regional migration. First, it examines the geographic variation and concentration of the foreign-born population across OECD regions. Second, it examines how the population share of migrants has evolved over recent years and which type of regions recorded the largest increases. Finally, the chapter uses novel, geographically granular data to provide a more nuanced picture of spatial differences in migration in OECD countries.

To support effective migration policy design, policy makers need to understand the different types of challenges and difficulties migrants face. Foremost, this requires comprehensive and detailed data on migrants, in particular their geographic distribution across different regions and cities within OECD countries. As documented by previous research, the foreign-born population differs from the native-born population in terms of where they choose to live. Overall, migrants tend to be more geographically concentrated in specific regions. This chapter sheds light on the regional distribution of migrants in 30 OECD countries using new data and time-series information, complemented by novel data at a very granular geographic level (municipalities, districts and small OECD regions) that offers an even more nuanced perspective on where migrants live.

The size of migrant communities differs greatly across OECD countries. On average, migrants make up 13% of the population in OECD countries and around 12% in EU27 countries (Figure 1.1). Luxembourg, where almost half of the population are migrants (47%), records the highest share of migrants among OECD countries, followed by Switzerland (30%), Australia (29%) and New Zealand (27%). At the other end of the scale, the population share of migrants is less than 1% in Mexico and around 2% in Poland. In a third of countries with available data (13 out of 36), the share of foreign-born exceeds 15% of the total population.

The population share of migrants does not only differ across countries but also varies across regions within OECD countries. Across the OECD, the average national difference in the migrant population share between the regions with the highest and those with the lowest share of migrants is around 15 percentage points. Belgium and the United Kingdom (UK) record the largest regional differences among OECD countries, with the population shares of migrants in Brussels and Greater London, their respective regions with the largest foreign-born communities, exceeding those of Flanders and North East England (UK) by 40 and 37 percentage points respectively (Figures 1.2 and 1.3). In Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Spain and the US, regional differences in the size of migrant populations are also significant, ranging from 20 to 30 percentage points. Given the size of their migrant communities, the Nordic countries Denmark, Norway and Sweden, as well as Switzerland, display relatively small regional variation.

As previously documented for data from 2015, the concentration of migrants remains especially strong in capital city regions (Diaz Ramirez et al., 2018[1]). Overall, the share of migrants in capital regions exceeds 15.8%.1 In around two-thirds of countries with available data for multiple regions, the capital city region has the largest share of foreign-born population.2 In fact, the Belgian and UK capitals, Brussels and London, are the two regions with the highest population share of migrants in the OECD with 54% and 44% respectively. Additionally, Vienna, the Austrian capital, records the fourth-largest population share of foreign-born among all OECD regions. On average, migrants account for 5.3 percentage points more of the population in capital regions than in their respective countries. Additionally, migrants are also heavily concentrated in regions that concentrate a lot of economic activity within their country or contain the economic capitals of their respective country.

In 2019, around 30 million people living in EU27/European Free Trade Association (EFTA)/UK countries were born outside the EU27, EFTA or UK, representing 9.7% of all inhabitants. Additionally, 16 million people born in EU27/EFTA/UK countries resided in one of those countries, other than their place of birth, accounting for 4.9% of the population (Eurostat, 2021[5]). The distinction between EU foreign-born and non-EU foreign-born reveals noticeable differences in the respective geographic distribution of migrants. In the EU27, 40% of all foreign-born individuals come from EU countries. In Norway, Switzerland, the UK (all non-EU countries), the proportion of migrants born in the EU even ranges from 60-66%. In Luxembourg and Switzerland, the two countries with the biggest proportion of EU-born among migrants, four out of five migrants come from other EU countries (Figure 1.4). Poland as well as the Baltic countries of Estonia and Latvia have the lowest share of EU individuals among the foreign-born population, with around 10% or less of migrants born in another EU country.

Compared to non-EU migrants, foreign-born from EU countries are more dispersed geographically within European countries. The share of EU migrants among the overall population tends to be more similar across regions within a given country than is the case for non-EU migrants. However, countries and regions still differ widely in terms of the composition of their foreign-born population divided into EU and non-EU migrants (Figure 1.5) While in Scandinavia as well as Belgium or Poland, most regions have a comparable proportion of EU migrants as a percentage of the entire migrant population, regional differences in the relative importance of EU migrants are considerable in other European countries. The relative share of EU migrants among all migrants differs more than 30 percentage points across regions in the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, the Netherland and the UK.

Over the past few years, the population share of migrants has increased in most OECD countries. Between 2015 and 2019, the share of the foreign-born population rose by 1.9 percentage points in the OECD overall and by around 1.6 percentage across the EU27 countries (Figure 1.6). While Denmark, Israel or Latvia recorded a small decrease in their migrant population shares, other countries such as Chile, Ireland, Norway or Sweden experienced a rise of the share of migrants among the total population of 3.5 percentage points or more in the period 2015-19.

In line with the national picture, most OECD regions experienced an increase in their respective foreign-born population in recent years. Only 19% out of all regions with available data, recorded a fall in the population share of migrants between 2015 and 2019. Around 42% of regions experienced an increase of more than 1 percentage point. These trends are significantly more pronounced over a longer period. Throughout the past decade, the population share of migrants increased in the vast majority of regions. Between 2010 and 2019, 61% of OECD regions saw their foreign-born population increase by at least 1 percentage point, with 14% of regions recording an increase of 5 percentage points or more.

Notwithstanding the general pattern, a closer look at regional data reveals considerable regional differences in various OECD countries. For example, French regions differed widely in the extent to which their foreign-born population share changed in 2015-19 (Figures 1.7 and 1.8). While the regional population share of foreign-born individuals fell by more than 1 percentage point in Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, Corsica saw a rapid increase of around 12 percentage points, reaching around 26% in 2019, on par with the capital region Ile-de-France. In Germany, the share of migrants rose by around 2 to 2.5 percentage points in most regions, whereas Berlin and Baden-Württemberg attracted significantly more migrants, with the share of foreign-born rising by 4.1 and 3.5 percentage points respectively. In the US, the situation has not changed dramatically over the period 2015-19. The vast majority of US regions recorded either marginal increases or marginal decreases in the population share of migrants.

Historically, migration across the OECD has often concentrated on specific areas within countries. Various push factors motivate people to leave their countries and a range of pull factors help explain where they migrate to. Among such pull factors, both regions’ demographic and economic characteristics have played an important role in attracting migration.

The presence of established migrant networks has historically been an important pull factor for migrant flows, as pre-existing migrant communities can provide support networks for new arrivals (Simpson, 2017[6]). In OECD countries, the presence of migrants from specific nationalities or countries of origin, appear to explain more than 70% of the variation in migrant flows (Beine, Docquier and Özden, 2011[7]). Regional economic conditions are another important pull factor that helps to explain migration flows. More specifically, higher wages and better income opportunities are key determinants of where migrants move (Bansak, Simpson and Zavodny, 2020[8]). Furthermore, migrants often move to regions with relatively strong labour markets, i.e. low unemployment, while economic recessions appear to deter migration (Hunt, 2006[9]).

Across OECD countries, capital city regions and those regions home to the countries’ largest city or centres of economic activity offer a high attraction to migrants. The foreign-born population share in OECD countries’ capitals is not only almost twice as high as in the rest of the country but has also grown faster over recent years (Figure 1.9). Between 2015 and 2019, it rose by 3.5 percentage points reaching 20.7%, equivalent to an increase of 21%. In contrast, the share of the foreign-born population only increased by around 16% outside of capital cities. Regions that contain their country’s largest city and most important economic centre have an even higher share of migrants than capitals, amounting to around 22.7% in 2019. In these regions, the migrant population grew by 15% between 2015 and 2019, a slower rate than in capital regions but comparable to that of the respective rest of the country.

In line with previous migration cycles (Simpson, 2017[6]), the population of foreign-born has grown the fastest in those OECD regions with relatively larger pre-existing migrant communities. Those regions with larger migration populations also experienced a larger percentage point increase in the share of migrants between 2015 and 2019. However, the relative increase of migration to OECD regions has been faster in places with smaller migrant communities (Figure 1.10, Panel A). Between 2015 and 2019, the 25% of regions with the lowest share of foreign-born population in 2015 recorded a growth of 11% of their migrant population with most of the growth occurring in 2015-17. Overall, the evolution of the foreign-born population share follows a clear gradient across the distribution of regions (divided into quartiles) based on their respective migrant population shares in 2015. While regions with smaller migrant communities saw their migrant populations growing fastest, those regions that had the highest foreign-born population shares in 2015, exceeding 18.5%, recorded only an increase of 4% in the population share of migrants. When examining the absolute change (percentage point increase) in the population share of migrants, the pattern is different (Figure 1.10, Panel B). In fact, those regions in the second-highest quartile in terms of their pre-existing migrant communities recorded the largest increase. Based on a smaller share of migrants in 2015, the regions with the fewest migrants recorded a smaller absolute increase in their migrant populations (in percentage points) compared to other regions.

Three factors could explain the observed dispersion of migration across OECD regions. First, regions with a lower share of migrants can achieve a faster relative increase more easily for statistical reasons due to a lower starting base. Second, countries with only a recent history of immigration, and therefore regions with small migrant communities, appear to have recorded relatively large migration flows since 2013. However, the patterns hold even when countries or regions with small migrant populations are excluded. Third, evidence from the literature suggests that migrant networks have the largest effects when migrant stocks are small and dampen with increasingly large migrant populations (Clark, Hatton and Williamson, 2007[10]).

Employment opportunities are an important driver of migration, with those OECD regions with more dynamic labour markets being key destinations for foreign-born individuals. Overall, the foreign-born population rose faster in regions with more favourable labour market conditions. Between 2013 and 2019, regions with relatively lower unemployment rates in the preceding year recorded significantly higher increases in the share of the foreign-born population (see Annex Table 1.A.1). Similarly, regions with more job opportunities, as measured by higher overall employment rates in the preceding year, experienced statistically significantly faster growth of their foreign-born population. In contrast, previous faster economic growth in terms of regional gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and GDP was not linked to increases in the migrant population, suggesting the relatively greater relevance of economic opportunities as a key factor in attracting migrants.

The COVID-19 pandemic will at least have led to a temporary reduction of migration to OECD regions and cities. It has led to a significant fall in international migration to OECD countries in 2020. Based on initial estimates, the number of new residence permits granted to migrants during the first half of 2020 was 46% below the number observed in 2019 (OECD, 2020[3]). With the pandemic continuing and many member countries facing a second or third wave, international travel remains highly restricted, which curtails international migration. As a consequence, the documented rise in the number of foreign-born across OECD regions over the past decade is likely to stagnate or even decrease slightly in 2020 and 2021.

While data for large regions (i.e. TL2) offer a broad and effective picture of how migrants are distributed within OECD countries, it can in some cases only provide relatively coarse spatial information. For example, some TL2 regions in populous OECD countries such as Germany or the US have a population of 10 million inhabitants or more and extend for tens of thousands square kilometre. As a result, data for such large territories and populations cannot reveal potentially interesting and meaningful intraregional discrepancies and also inhibit cross-country analysis of trends by regional typologies based on commonalities of OECD regions.

To fill this void of granular subnational migration data, the OECD has engaged in an extensive data collection effort. The resulting novel dataset offers unprecedentedly detailed information on the subnational geography of migration in OECD countries. It consists of granular subnational data on the presence of migrants in 20 OECD countries, primarily at the level of municipalities with a few exceptions such as Germany (districts, Kreise) and the USA and Canada (census tracts/census subdivisions) (see Box 1.3 for more detail).

Based on data from continuous population registers as well as censuses, the new dataset offers an unprecedentedly granular perspective on the geography of migration within OECD countries. While the level of granularity depends on the number of municipalities or census tracts in each country, the new dataset provides additional insightful spatial information as it can be aggregated to larger geographic levels, thus enabling a consistent international comparison of migration trends across small regions (i.e. TL3) or metropolitan areas. Furthermore, the data allow for an analysis of changes in migration by different types of regions based on the OECD regional typologies, which classify regions according to their access to a metropolitan area (see Box 1.4 for a detailed explanation) or distinguishes between predominantly rural or urban regions.

Within OECD countries, significant spatial differences in migration exist. Figures 1.12 and 1.13 display the share of migrants among the local population across OECD countries with granular population data on foreign-born individuals. Especially in countries with a detailed geographic breakdown (i.e. information on small administrative units), such as France, Italy or Spain, the new dataset reveals clear geographic differences. In France, migrants are particularly concentrated in and around large cities. In Spain, the data show the large concentration in municipalities that surround the major cities such as Barcelona, Madrid or Valencia as well as in the communities along the Mediterranean coast.

Aggregating the municipal/census data demonstrates that migrants are significantly more concentrated in specific types of regions than the native-born population is. More than half of the foreign-born population (53%) in the 22 OECD countries with available data live in large metropolitan regions, i.e. regions that contain a metropolitan area of more than 1.5 million inhabitants, which is home to at least 50% of the regional population (see Box 1.4 for the definition of the classification of TL3 regions) (Figure 1.11). In comparison, only 40% of native-born individuals live in large metropolitan regions. In contrast, migrants appear to be less likely than the native-born population to settle outside of metropolitan regions. Less than a fifth of migrants (19%) reside in non-metropolitan regions, compared to almost 30% of the native-born population. The difference in the location of migrants and native-born residents is particularly striking in regions near a metropolitan area and remote regions, where only 6% and 3% of migrants live respectively. Among the native-born, those regions account instead for 12% (regions near a metropolitan area) and 5% (remote regions) of the entire population.

In terms of the overall regional population share, migrants make up more than 23% of inhabitants in metropolitan regions and around 21% of inhabitants in non-metropolitan regions across 22 OECD countries (Figure 1.14). However, looking at the full spectrum of regions by their access to metropolitan areas reveals further significant geographic differences within OECD countries. For instance, in Australia and Canada, more than 35% of people living in large metropolitan regions were born abroad, compared to around 10% in remote regions. In the UK, migrants make up almost a quarter of inhabitants in large metropolitan regions, whereas their share only ranges from 4% (remote regions) to 11% (metropolitan regions) in other parts of the country. Overall, the migrant population follows a clear spatial gradient in most countries. It tends to be highest by a significant margin in large metropolitan regions or metropolitan regions in countries without a large metropolitan area. Additionally, the regional population share of migrants is lowest in almost all OECD countries in either remote regions or regions near a small- or medium-sized city.

Metropolitan regions not only have, on average, larger smaller migrant communities than non-metropolitan regions, they have also recorded faster growth of their foreign-born population. Between 2015 and 2019, in 12 out of 17 OECD countries with available data, metropolitan regions experienced higher growth in the population share of foreign-born than non-metropolitan regions did (Figure 1.15). While those differences were small in countries such as Denmark, Italy, Sweden or Switzerland, they were highly significant in others. In Germany for example, the share of the foreign-born population rose by almost 1.6 percentage points in metropolitan regions from 2015 to 2019 compared to around 0.6 percentage points in non-metropolitan regions. Similarly, the percentage points increase in the migrant population was also much higher in metropolitan regions than in non-metropolitan regions in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. However, in a number of OECD countries including Belgium, Korea and Norway, migrant communities grew the most in non-metropolitan regions. These results, while for a subset of OECD countries, seem to confirm the earlier documented finding for larger (TL2) OECD regions (see Figure 1.10) that, in various OECD countries, migrant communities and thus migration appear to become more geographically dispersed.

The degree or urbanisation offers another insightful perspective on the geography of the presence of migrants and their change over time (see Box 1.5 for a description). Using the “degree of urbanisation” to distinguish different types of settlement for European countries, cities – defined as local units above 50 000 inhabitants with a population density of over 1 500 inhabitants per square kilometre – have significantly higher migrant population shares than other areas in almost all OECD countries with available data.3 For example, in Australia, Austria, Belgium or France, migrants made up at least twice as much of the population in cities than in towns and suburbs or rural areas in 2019. The spatial differences are particularly striking in Belgium and the Netherlands, where migrants account for 33% (Belgium) and 17% (Netherlands) of the population in cities but only 12% (Belgium) and 7% (Netherlands) in towns and suburbs with rural areas reporting even lower migrant population shares. However, the migrant community is more equally spread out across the degree of urbanisation in various other OECD countries. In Italy, differences between cities (12%), towns and suburbs (11.1%) or rural areas (9.5%) are relatively small. Additionally, cities and towns and suburbs have relatively similar migrant population shares in both Ireland and Spain.

The degree of urbanisation reveals differences in the spatial patterns in the location as well as the increase of migrant communities in a comparison of EU and non-EU countries in the OECD. Among EU member states of the OECD, migrants account for a much larger share of the population in cities in 2019 (17%) than in towns and suburbs (13%) or rural areas (7%). Furthermore, the relative size of the migrant community has grown the fastest in cities in both absolute and relative terms, rising 2 percentage points or 13% between 2014 and 2019. In contrast, the foreign-born population share is more comparable across the degree of urbanisation across those OECD countries with available data that are outside the EU. Additionally, migration appears to have been occurring at a similar pace in cities, towns and suburbs in those countries, with an increase of 0.6 percentage points between 2014 and 2019. While the results for the non-EU countries cannot be generalised to all non-European OECD countries due to a lack of data for a number of countries, the results nonetheless illustrate the potential richness of information that granular data based on grid cells or small geographic units can provide to inform localised migration policies.


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The following table displays a set of pairwise first-difference model regressions results for the change in the regional population share of migrants over 2015-19. The regressions include year fixed effects and cluster standard errors by regions.


← 1. The share of migrants rises to 18.6% if Seoul and Tokyo – two capitals with very large populations but small migrant communities – are excluded.

← 2. In 18 out of 30 countries, the capital regions have the highest share of foreign-born population.

← 3. Figure 1.16 and Figure 1.17 combine data provided by Eurostat for European countries with the new granular migration dataset (Box 1.3) for non-European countries. For the latter, local areas such as municipalities can be categorised by the degree of urbanisation using grid level information on population size and density of those areas (Eurostat/DG REGIO/JRC, 2021[19]).

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