Data Points

The World’s Congested Human Migration Routes in 5 Maps

Europe is not the only part of the world facing a refugee crisis.

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SOURCES: Missing Migrants Project, International Organization for Migration; UNHCR; i-Map; Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat

Families and individuals on the move swell into long-used migration routes across the globe.


Data Points is a new series in which we explore the world of data visualization, information graphics, and cartography.

The desperate men, women, and children flooding into Europe from the Middle East and Africa are not the only people moving along ever-shifting and dangerous migration routes.

Last year saw the highest levels of global forced displacement on record—59.5 million individuals left their homes in 2014 due to “persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or human rights violations” according to the United Nations. That's 8.3 million more people than the year before.

Now Europe’s governments are straining as hundreds of thousands more have been making the journey this year. A majority are from war-ravaged Syria, risking treacherous waters and unscrupulous smugglers as they push north for a better and safer life.

“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner, declared in June.

Plenty of other nations are also experiencing exoduses or are grappling with becoming transit points, smugglers' routes, or desired end points for migrants. The routes, which are often secretive, are cutting paths through Central America and Mexico, the Horn of Africa (there are now nearly one million Somali refugees), and countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar and Malaysia, along with the headline-making migrations through East Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.  

These four maps show some of the major mass migrations now underway:

Eastern Mediterranean Route
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SOURCES: Missing Migrants Project, International Organization for Migration; UNHCR; i-Map; Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat

As of this week, the number of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria approached 4.1 million. These Syrians in exile have sought shelter in camps and temporary housing in Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and throughout North Africa. Almost half have landed in Turkey, according to the UN, but conditions there have been worsening.

The Eastern Mediterranean route—the passage long used by migrants crossing through Turkey to the European Union—has grown ever more crowded since the outbreak of war in Syria in 2011. Syrian routes have also been merging along easternmost points below the Mediterranean Sea of an East African migratory route that has long been used by people fleeing conflict in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Mediterranean Sea Route
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SOURCES: Missing Migrants Project, International Organization for Migration; UNHCR; i-Map; Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat

Of the more than 442,000 refugees and migrants so far this year who have made it to Europe by sea, 51 percent are from Syria, according to the UN. The number of dead and missing this year alone has passed 2,900, including children like three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned alongside his brother and mother on the perilous boat journey.

Nearly 90 percent of those who attempt to reach Europe by sea come from ten countries, in descending order by percentage: Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia, and Bangladesh.

Central American Route
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SOURCE: Missing Migrants Project, International Organization for Migration

Poverty and violence in Mexico and Central America has uprooted millions. Many have taken the treacherous journey north along smuggling routes, increasingly controlled by drug cartels, towards the U.S. border. The human flow includes more than 68,000 unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the border between 2013 and 2014, according the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Long-simmering conflict in Colombia has resulted in more than six million internally-displaced people there while  an increasingly violent drug trade in Honduras and El Salvador has fueled more destabilization in the region.

Southeast Asian Route
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SOURCE: Missing Migrants Project, International Organization for Migration

Political upheaval—including Muslim Rohingya refugees who have fled political repression in Myanmar—restrictive migration policies, and a lack of legal frameworks for refugees have made Southeast Asia increasingly dangerous for migrants. Human trafficking, forced labor and other abuses are also rife in the region, according to the UN.

Earlier this year the International Organization for Migration estimated that some 6,000 people fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh were stranded at sea on overcrowded fishing boats controlled by smugglers in the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca off the coasts of Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia. The IOM also estimates that 94,000 migrants have set off by sea since 2014, including 31,000 this year.  

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