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Where Immigrants Live

Immigration has returned once again as a hot-button issue around the world. We wonder: In absolute numbers, which country is home to more foreign-born residents than any other?

A. Germany
B. Russia
C. Saudi Arabia
D. United States

A. Germany … is not correct.

Following the government’s decision to accept nearly a million refugees in 2015, Germany’s already sizeable immigrant population rose to 12 million (15% of the country’s total population), according to Pew Research data on the world’s international migrants.

This figure makes Germany’s foreign-born population the second-largest in absolute numbers in the world. While Germany is a distant second to the global leader, it narrowly leads the second tier contenders.

In 1990, when East Germany merged into West Germany, the newly reunited country was home to just 5.9 million immigrants – slightly less than half of today’s foreign population in Germany.

Today, other leading contenders in Western Europe include fifth-ranked United Kingdom (8.5 million, accounting for 13% of the total population) and eighth-ranked France (7.8 million, 12% of the total).

Among the world’s 20 largest economies, Indonesia is home to the smallest foreign-born population, with an estimated 330,000. Brazil, with the next-smallest, is home to slightly more than double that number at 710,000. Both countries, the world’s third and fourth most populous democracies, have contributed sizeable migrant populations to other countries.

B. Russia … is not correct.

As of 2015, Russia has a foreign-born population numbering 11.6 million – the third-largest in the world. This figure means about 8% of Russia’s population is foreign-born.

Many of these migrants hail originally from former Soviet Republics, particularly impoverished Central Asian countries. The Russian Federation’s foreign-born population has remained nearly unchanged since 1990 – 11.5 million – when the country was part of the Soviet Union.

China, the most populous country in the world, has fewer than 1 million foreign-born residents (980,000). Nearby South Korea, a much smaller economy and total population, hosts 35% more foreign-born residents in absolute numbers than China.

India, the second most populous country, is home to 5.2 million immigrants. It has the 12th largest foreign-born population in the world. This is equal to about 0.4% of the Indian population.

India’s immigrant population is three times smaller than the population of Indians living abroad, who number 15.6 million.

C. Saudi Arabia … is not correct.

Saudi Arabia is now home to the fourth-largest immigrant population in the world: 10.2 million (as of 2015), according to Pew Research. One-third of Saudi Arabia’s population is foreign-born.

Saudi Arabia, like many of the Gulf monarchies, features prominent migrant-worker populations in both the domestic service and the construction industries. Many of these workers, coming from South or Southeast Asian countries, often find themselves in difficult and exploited positions when they arrive.

Still, remittance flows from Saudi Arabia back to these workers’ home countries account for tens of billions of dollars annually and provide a vital financial lifeline to many of their families.

Saudi Arabia’s much smaller neighbor United Arab Emirates (with a 9.2 million total population, less than 1/3rd of Saudi Arabia’s population) is also home to 8.1 million immigrants. These people constitute 88% of UAE’s total population.

This makes UAE not only the country with the sixth-largest foreign-born population, but also the country with the greatest ratio of immigrants to native-born residents in the world.

Other oil-rich Gulf neighbors are in a similar position. In Qatar, 75% of the population is foreign-born, in Kuwait it is 74% and in Bahrain it is 51% – but with much smaller population totals overall.

These mostly oil-based economies are completely dependent on migrant-workers from poor countries as well as on skilled expatriates from wealthy countries. However, both non-native population cohorts are afforded very minimal social participation rights beyond contributing their economic value.

Across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia’s chief geopolitical rival, Iran, is home to 2.7 million immigrants, accounting for just 3% of the country’s population.

D. United States … is correct.

The United States is home to far and away the largest immigrant population in terms of absolute numbers in the world. The country has 46.7 million foreign-born residents, constituting 14% of the country’s total population (as of 2015).

The U.S. immigrant population today is nearly four times larger than the immigrant population of current runner-up Germany.

This marks a significant widening of the gap compared to a quarter-century earlier in 1990. At that point in time, the U.S. immigrant population (at 23.3 million) was only twice as large as the immigrant population in the then-Soviet Republic of Russia (11.5 million), which was the runner-up then.

In 1990, the third-largest immigrant population in the world was found in India, while the fourth-largest was in the then-Soviet Republic of Ukraine.

While the United States has always had political friction over the immigration issue, it has also often prided itself on its reputation as a “nation of immigrants” and a global melting pot.

Less than one-quarter (24%) of the U.S. foreign-born population – 11.1 million in 2014 – is without legal residency status.

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