International migration

When people migrate for better work and life opportunities, they have to adjust to new systems, deal with legal and administrative challenges, and tackle linguistic barriers and potential discrimination.

Chapter 3 PDF

Children at a protest against a proposed federal crackdown on illegal immigration in Los Angeles, California, United States. CREDIT: Krista Kennell/

Key Messages

  • The number of international migrants increased from 93 million in 1960 to 258 million in 2017. Their share of the population fell from 3.1% in 1960 to 2.7% in 1990 before reaching 3.4% in 2017.
  • In OECD countries, the share of first- and second-generation immigrant students increased from 9.4% to 12.5% between 2006 and 2015. In addition, 8.9% of the population were natives of mixed heritage and 1.8% were returning students born abroad.
  • The more educated are more likely to emigrate. Global emigration rates were 5.4% for those with tertiary education, 1.8% for those with secondary and 1.1% for those with primary.
  • Immigrants tend to be more educated than their hosts. In Brazil and Canada, there is at least a 20 percentage point gap between immigrants and natives with tertiary education.
  • Migrants often find their education constrained by legal, administrative or linguistic barriers. In 2017, twice as many foreign-born youth as natives left school early in the European Union.
  • Age at migration is a major determinant of education needs, opportunities, trajectories and outcomes. In the United States, 40% of Mexican immigrants who arrived at age 7 did not complete secondary school, compared with 70% of those who arrived at age 14.
  • Educational gaps between immigrants and natives tend to persist across generations. In Belgium, there is a 17 percentage point gap between second-generation immigrants and natives who stopped education at the lower secondary level.
  • Migrants’ education attainment and learning improve faster than those of people left behind. In the United States, children of emigrants from Colombia had 2.3 more years of education, on average, than children of those who did not emigrate.
  • In many countries, including Australia and Malaysia, undocumented immigrants and unaccompanied children in detention often have limited or no access to education.
  • Lack of language proficiency is an education disadvantage. In 2012, an average of about 53% of low-literacy first-generation immigrant students in 23 high income countries received remedial courses, from 13% in Slovenia to almost 80% in Finland.
  • Separating low achievers from the most talented disadvantages immigrant students. In Linz, Austria, where tracking starts at age 10, students with immigrant backgrounds were 16 percentage points less likely than natives to choose an academic track in grade 5.

In 2017, there were 258 million international migrants, amounting to 3.4% of the world population. About 64% resided in high income countries, where the share of immigrants as a share of population rose from 10% in 2000 to 14% in 2017. In many Gulf states, including Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, immigrants are the majority group.

Immigration rates are two to three times the global average in a diverse a set of middle income countries including Costa Rica, Côte d’Ivoire, Malaysia and South Africa. Conversely, countries with emigration rates above 5% of the population include Albania, Georgia, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan and Nicaragua. The largest migration corridor is Mexico to the United States. Others include eastern Europe to western Europe, northern Africa to southern Europe, and southern Asia to the Gulf states.

In most Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, at least one-fifth of 15-year-old students were immigrants or had immigrant backgrounds in 2015 (Figure 2). An estimate for this report shows that in 80% of secondary schools in high income countries, at least 5% of students have immigrant backgrounds; in 52%, at least 15% have immigrant backgrounds.


Figure 2: In most OECD countries, at least one out of five 15-year-old students was an immigrant or had an immigrant background

Migration influences education and is influenced by it

Migrants are not a random population. Among other differences with non-migrants, they are more educated, which helps them gather better information, respond to economic opportunities, use transferable skills and finance emigration. In 2000, global emigration rates were 5.4% for those with tertiary education, 1.8% for secondary and 1.1% for primary.

Educational attainment at time of emigration also depends on the conditions under which migrants cross borders: US immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Mexico and Nicaragua without proper documentation had more education, on average, than those on temporary contracts but less than those who became legal residents.

Understanding the impact of migration on educational attainment and achievement involves two key comparisons. The first is between those who do or do not migrate, though these groups differ in more than the decision to migrate (e.g. migrants might have had more education even had they stayed). The second is between immigrants and natives, who also differ in more than migration status. In some cases, selective immigration policies may mean immigrants are more educated than natives; in other cases, immigrants may live in poorer areas served by lower-quality schools, a factor in their children having lower educational attainment and achievement.

In 2000, global emigration rates were 5.4% for those with tertiary education, 1.8% for secondary and 1.1% for primary


Migrants often leave children behind. In the Philippines, an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million children have at least one international migrant parent. The effect of remittances on education can be critical.

Globally, households received US$613 billion in international remittances in 2017, with US$466 billion going to households in low and middle income countries – three times the volume of official development assistance. India and China received the largest amount in absolute terms but Kyrgyzstan and Tonga led by percentage of gross domestic product.

In theory, remittances may have a positive or negative effect on education. Diversifying sources of income provides an insurance effect: Families may be less likely to have to cut education expenditure. Yet, although extra income increases household spending, education competes with other expenditure, children may have to replace the migrant’s labour, and lack of parental input can hinder education. Remittances may also create a ‘culture of migration’ in which high returns on low- or semi-skilled labour abroad disincentivize continuing in education.

In practice, the incidence of international remittances increased household education spending by 35%, on average, according to a set of studies in 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Central, Southern and South‑eastern Asia. The effect was even larger in Latin America (53%).

SDG target 10.c calls for remittance transaction costs to be reduced to less than 3%, on average. The current average is 7.1%. Traditional banks are the most expensive channels, at 11%, and some intermediaries in Africa charge above 20%. Assuming the share of total household spending on education is 4%, reducing remittance costs to 3% could allow households to spend an additional US$1 billion on education per year.

Several studies suggest that remittances’ overall effects on education outcomes are positive. In the Philippines, a 10% rise in international remittances increased school attendance by more than 10% and reduced child labour by more than three hours per week. Effects can differ by gender. In Jordan, remittances had a positive impact on post-compulsory education attendance only among males.

Positive findings may reflect particularly selective migration corridors or contexts with low enrolment to start with. In some low-skill migration corridors, there is evidence of negative effects on outcomes. International remittances were associated with a large decrease in probability of enrolment in Guatemala, even though those enrolled performed better as a result of remittances. In rural Mexico, left-behind students had poorer education outcomes due to remittances.



In destination countries, immigrants often leave education early. In the European Union, 10% of natives and 19% of foreign-born people aged 18 to 24 left school early in 2017. Dropout can depend on arrival age; outcomes vary considerably by whether students enter host systems at the beginning, middle or end of compulsory education. In the United States, 40% of Mexican immigrants who arrived at age 7 did not complete secondary school, compared with 70% of those who arrived at age 14.

However, immigrants’ education status improves more quickly than that of natives and those left behind. In Germany, natives whose parents had below-average education progressed more slowly than their immigrant peers. In 8 out of 10 Latin American and Caribbean countries, children of immigrants had, on average, 1.4 more years of education than children of parents who did not migrate.

Educational attainment gaps span generations. On the 2015 PISA, 49% of first-generation and 61% of second-generation 15-year-old immigrants attained at least level 2 proficiency in reading, mathematics and science, compared with 72% of natives. In Canada, Germany and Italy, natives continue to enjoy an advantage over second-generation immigrants, especially in tertiary education.

A comparison of second-generation Turkish immigrants across six countries showed that only 5% of those in Germany but 37% of those in France had access to tertiary education. Institutional factors in the latter, such as early access to pre-primary education, late tracking into ability streams in secondary education and access to tertiary education even through lower ability streams, help explain the gap.

Lower socio-economic status explains about 20% of the immigrant learning gap in the OECD; in some countries, including France and Greece, it can explain as much as half. Immigrant students in OECD countries are nearly twice as likely as natives to repeat a grade.

Immigration and citizenship policies hamper access to school

The right to education and the general non-discrimination principle are enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. A migration-specific international treaty affirms that migrants and refugees should be treated like nationals in education, although only one out of four countries, almost all of which are migrant-sending, has ratified it to date. In practice, restrictive immigration policies, inconsistent laws and stringent host country documentation requirements may prevent fulfilment of this right.

Some national laws may undermine a constitutional right to education. In Cyprus and Slovakia, schools are obliged to report families without valid documentation to immigration authorities. In South Africa, the 2002 Immigration Act prevents undocumented migrants from enrolling in school.

Legislation enshrining the education rights of foreign-born populations increases the likelihood that the right to education will be fulfilled. In Argentina, the 2006 National Education Law affirms the right to education for all inhabitants. The Slovenian elementary school act explicitly extends the right to education to stateless people.

An inclusive legal framework does not necessarily prevent regional or local discriminatory practices. Schools may demand birth certificates, prior education credentials, national identification papers or proof of residency to enrol. In Chile, where the number of Haitian migrants increased from less than 5,000 in 2010 to 105,000 in 2017, policy dictates public education should be provided to all children; in practice, education provision is at the discretion of local government officials. School officials in Uzbekistan often require proof of residency, a passport or facility in the national language before enrolment.

Official clarification can reassure school gatekeepers that the law does not require complete documentation, and a strong national legal framework may provide avenues for individuals to voice complaints. In 2014, Italy and Turkey clarified that documentation was not obligatory for enrolment. In France, parents can appeal to an ombudsman or the courts to seek remediation for discriminatory enrolment decisions.

Still, undocumented migrants continue to face obstacles to access. In the United States, which had 11 million unauthorized immigrants in 2014, threat of deportation may keep children out of school: In February 2017, absenteeism in the Las Cruces, New Mexico, school district increased by 60% after an immigration raid. The 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme targeted 1.3 million undocumented youth who arrived as children, offering protection from deportation and eligibility for work permits. The programme increased secondary graduation rates by an estimated 15% as eligible immigrants sought to meet conditions.

The education needs of unaccompanied migrant minors, who are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, are frequently unmet. Their number worldwide increased from 66,000 in 2010–2011 to 300,000 in 2015–2016. In many countries, including Australia, Greece, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nauru and Thailand, children and youth in immigrant detention often have limited or no access to education. About 73% of 86,000 minors who arrived in Italy between 2011 and 2016 were unaccompanied. Despite legislation in 2015 and 2017 aimed at protecting them, only a minority regularly attend school.

Lack of documentation can create barriers for the 10 million stateless people worldwide, some of whom are descendants of migrants. In Côte d’Ivoire, with 700,000 stateless, access to education requires proof of nationality. In the Dominican Republic, where nationality has been stripped from thousands of Haitian immigrants, in 2012 the primary school net attendance rate of children aged 6 to 13 was 52% among those born in Haiti but 82% among immigrants born in other countries.

Education policies can support migrants’ access to school

Early childhood programmes, language support programmes, and policies related to streaming, selection and segregation are key to improving education access.

Immigrant participation in early childhood programmes is an essential foundation. On average, the reading score of 15-year-old immigrants who attended pre-primary education was higher by an amount that corresponded to more than one year of school. It can be difficult for undocumented immigrants to gain access to early childhood programmes: In the United States, pre-school enrolment of undocumented 3- and 4-year-olds lagged behind that of both documented immigrants and natives.

Lack of language proficiency is an education disadvantage, because it inhibits socialization, relationship building and sense of belonging and increases risk of discrimination. In 2012, 53% of low-literacy first-generation immigrant students were in extra out-of-school literacy courses in 23 high income countries.

The duration of preparatory classes varies from one year in Belgium, France and Lithuania to four years in Greece. Germany’s ‘welcome classes’ provide separate language-intensive instruction for students with immigrant backgrounds. In Spain, regions tend to follow one of three models – temporary classes that students attend for part of the day, immersion classes, and intercultural classes that extend the focus from language support to building links between families and schools. Governments need to avoid separate schooling for long periods because it may accentuate deficits and disadvantage.

Early ability-based selection tends to disadvantage immigrant students, compromising opportunities and leading to inequality and a stronger association between social background and student results. In Italy, 59% of immigrant general secondary graduates transitioned to university, compared with 33% of professional school and 13% of technical school graduates.

Immigrant students tend to concentrate in suburban areas and schools with lower academic standards and performance levels. Segregation is exacerbated by native students moving to wealthier neighbourhoods. Non-native speakers in the United Kingdom were more likely to attend school with disadvantaged native speakers. The share of immigrants can also hamper the education outcomes of disadvantaged natives. In Norway, a 10 percentage point increase in the share of immigrants in a school was associated with a 3 percentage point increase in native dropout.

Countries use various tools to combat segregation. In Italy, a 2010 circular set a classroom maximum of 30% first-generation immigrants. In practice, 17% of primary classrooms exceeded the limit. Despite policies and reforms to limit segregation in schooling in France and Germany, parents circumvent the assigned schools, and schools find ways to provide separate classes based on parents’ choices of religious or foreign language instruction. An analysis of 108 primary school catchment areas in four districts of Berlin showed that in one out of five schools, the number of immigrant-background students enrolled was double the number living in the area.


Schools with high numbers of immigrant or refugee students are more likely to have higher funding needs. Formula-based funding aims to increase equity by allocating additional resources to schools characterized by factors associated with disadvantage. Some programmes incorporate migrants as an explicit factor in school funding. In Lithuania, the school budget grants an additional 20% for students who belong to a national minority and 30% for immigrant students in their first school year in the country.

Such practices are the exception, but migrant and refugee students may still trigger additional funding indirectly. Funding may follow low proficiency in language of instruction or socio-economic deprivation at the neighbourhood level, both common among immigrants. The new National Funding Formula in England (United Kingdom) abolishes specific funding for migrants but allocates funds to compensate for such disadvantages as ‘deprivation’, ‘low prior attainment’ and ‘English as an additional language’.

Additional resources to support migrant and refugee students are often available to schools beyond the basic funding formula. Denmark’s government earmarked close to US$3 million in 2008–2011 for activities and resources, such as school and home counsellors, to strengthen cooperation between immigrant families and schools.

Some countries target support for language programmes outside funding formulas. The US English Language Acquisition Program allocates about US$740 million each year in state formula grants based on the share of English learners. Schools draw on this funding to implement language instruction. Additional support may also target teachers, who may encounter difficulties connecting with immigrant students and families.

Targeted support linked to migrant and refugee students may overlook structural school and administration challenges. Immigrants and refugees with lower education tend to cluster in neighbourhoods with already poorly staffed school authorities. Providing incentives to attract teachers to schools in need is hard to achieve outside the regular school budget. Moreover, political decisions can significantly affect ad hoc funding or extrabudgetary support for programmes, as in the United States.


Immigrant and refugee literacy skills vary widely. A survey of asylum-seekers in Germany in 2016 showed that 15% were illiterate, 34% were literate in a Latin script and 51% were literate in another script. Adult literacy can increase immigrants’ and refugees’ sense of welcome and belonging and their ability to communicate and meet day-to-day needs. Greater host-language proficiency is associated with increased job opportunities, higher earnings and better self-reported health. Yet large-scale public literacy programmes targeted at adult immigrants and refugees remain rare.

Recognizing immigrant and refugee diversity, programmes must be flexible and their intensity, content and timetable should vary. Learners who are illiterate in their first language face particular challenges. One estimate suggests that those with no or little formal education can take up to eight times longer to reach a basic level in second-language reading. In Finland, the slow learning pace means the training provided may be too short for illiterate adults.

To help such learners, teachers need skills in using materials that capture the challenges immigrants encounter in daily life. In Vienna’s AlfaZentrum für MigrantInnen programme, learners provide materials from their workplace or home that they want to understand.

Teaching and learning in adult immigrants’ first language can be an effective way to support initial literacy acquisition. In Norway, adult learning centres have started working with the most educated immigrant learners as assistants in initial literacy classes to bridge comprehension difficulties between teachers and learners.

Underfunding can limit programme delivery, especially where government resources and support do not align with policy, as in the United Kingdom. Poverty, security concerns and lack of culturally appropriate programme offerings may dissuade individuals, especially women, from attending classes. Concentration of new arrivals in ethnolinguistic enclaves can reduce language learning by limiting exposure. And the temporary nature of some migration can reduce motivation to learn a new language.

Language programmes should be adaptable, culturally sensitive and well resourced. Including immigrants and refugees in planning and instruction can help. In New Zealand’s programme design, the government consulted former and current refugees on desirable characteristics of courses and barriers to access.

As employment is a priority of immigrants and refugees upon arrival, integration and language acquisition can be tied to workforce participation. In Cabo Verde, the Promotion of Literacy and Training of Immigrants of the African Communities Living in Cabo Verde programme covers literacy, Portuguese language and vocational training, such as computer skills and carpentry. The German government’s integration course includes 600 hours of German language instruction, and refugees who reach B1 proficiency are eligible for job-related language training.


Financial literacy is low in many traditional sending countries and low-skill migrant communities, leaving immigrants and refugees open to fraud or financial exploitation. In particular, financial and welfare systems in host countries, as well as remittance channels, may be initially opaque.

Global initiatives such as the OECD International Network on Financial Education include a focus on migrants as part of broader agendas promoting financial inclusion. Financial education programmes for migrants often involve a combination of international, government, non-government and private-sector stakeholders.

Indonesia adopted a national financial literacy strategy in 2013. It is based on evidence generated by a joint programme with the World Bank, with training targeting moments when prospective migrants face big financial decisions. The Moroccan Foundation for Financial Education partnered with the International Labour Organization to set up financial education programmes for immigrants in Morocco. In Romania, the International Organization for Migration launched a joint initiative with the MasterCard Foundation to support integration of immigrants and refugees, prioritizing vulnerable groups, including children, women and people with special needs.

Even with good financial literacy, migrants may be unfamiliar with financial terms and the features of financial products. They may lack trust in financial institutions, both at home and in host communities. Undocumented migrants and newly arrived refugees often fear that the information requested for access to financial services will be used to identify and potentially deport them. The financial industry lacks relevant and culturally sensitive products for migrants and for families back home.

Evidence on the impact of financial education on the economic well-being of migrants is mixed. A study of Indian migrants in Qatar found that financial education had an impact, albeit small, on financial decisions. Studies in Australia and New Zealand found that financial literacy programmes did not significantly affect the use of formal banking.

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