Censuses and migrants

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Created time
May 3, 2023 1:26PM
Filipino migrants, by VP7071, CC BY-SA 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

Counting people has never been easy, in the Bible we read about one census which was divinely approved and another one that was not, with predictably bad consequences for King David. In Russia the first census was carried out by the Mongols with the express purpose of counting the tribute-payers and led to a few brutally crushed rebellions. Probably it is one of the most obvious examples of the desire of the government everywhere and at all times to make sense of those they govern (to make them legible in the words of Seeing Like a State which is a great book).

Now one group that is particularly hard to measure is migrants. I myself moved to another country and I am sure that I was under- or double-counted since then. Joining OpenD has allowed me to explore this fascinating issue and I wanted to share the findings here. As an example, let’s look at Filipinos in Malaysia. Malaysia is richer than most of its neighbours and therefore it attracts many immigrants, including Filipinos.

Wikipedia says that 325 thousand Filipinos lived legally in Malaysia in 2011 - obscure statistics don’t get updated often on Wikipedia. According to the latest Migration Policy Institute data there were 118 thousand migrants in 2020 (so the latest data is actually 3 years old!). Finally, according to some Philippine officials, there are actually 800 thousand Filipinos in Malaysia.  So if I’m a company that targets this segment, how can I know what its true size is - 118, 325 or 800 thousand?

As we have anonymised data about nearly all smartphone users, we were able to count 268 thousand Filipinos in Malaysia. Of those, 31 thousand were in the country only for a few days, which leaves 231 thousand long-term residents. To calculate the total number we’d have to account for those who don’t have smartphones or did not get into our data for other reasons. This would require additional research, but even the numbers we already have show that the Malaysian authorities underestimate the number of migrants while the Philippine officials responsible for migrants are probably a bit too optimistic about the numbers.

If you’d like to chat about this or in general about our data feel free to shoot me a message!

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Created date
October 29, 2023
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