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Drawing on the new DEMIG POLICY database that comprises over 6,500 migration policy changes in 45 countries, this paper analyses the nature and evolution of migration policies over the 20th and early 21st centuries. The findings challenge the common assumption that migration policies have become increasingly restrictive over the past decades, and instead demonstrate that since 1945 migration policies have been consistently dominated by less restrictive changes. This trend is robust across a large number of countries, but differs across policy types and migrant categories. While entry and integration policies have generally become less restrictive, border control and, since the 1990s, exit policies have become more restrictive. Instead of a growing restrictiveness, the essence of post-WWII migration policies has been an increasing sophistication through the development of specific policy instruments targeting particular immigrant groups. While policies towards migrant categories such as irregular migrants and, more recently, family members have often become more restrictive, a larger number of – generally less visible – policies targeting high and low-skilled workers, students and migrants from specific origins have become less restrictive. Migration policies should therefore be understood as a tool of migrant selection rather than as an instrument affecting numbers.



Working paper


International Migration Institute

Publication Date




Total pages



migration policies, international migration, restrictiveness, selection, database