When a Country's Biggest City Lies Outside Its Borders

When a Country's Biggest City Lies Outside Its Borders

By James Watkins


Because international migration has made cities global and national borders meaningless.

By James Watkins

It was a relatively normal campaign stop for French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron: A crowd of 3,000 tricolor-waving supporters raucously welcomed his speech in the packed hall. 

Never mind that the event was in London.

The British capital has in recent years become a compulsory campaign stop for French politicians, and for good reason: With 300,000 French citizens living there, all of whom can vote in their home country, London boasts the sixth-largest population of French people in the world — and that’s including cities in France. Electorally, the city is more significant than Nantes, Strasbourg, Montpellier or Bordeaux.

Whatever policies surround immigration, asylum and visas, nations are already deeply, if invisibly, connected — through their populations of expats and emigrants. Turkish campaigns have sought to reach emigrant voters in Berlin and Rotterdam for an upcoming referendum. Mexican politicians regularly campaign in the U.S. Overall, 115 countries allow citizens in their diasporas to vote in national elections, according to the Overseas Vote Foundation; 14 of them even have specific legislative constituencies for expatriates.

Diaspora effects on economies are perhaps even more significant. Every year, migrants send some $450 billion to family and friends in developing countries — that’s more than three times global aid budgets. In countries like Nepal, Liberia and Tajikistan, the value of these remittances exceeds 25 percent of GDP.

But beyond all that, some foreign cities now host such large expatriate communities that they rival the largest cities at home.

The Maltese community in Detroit is twice as large as any single city in Malta itself.


The world’s largest community of Maltese people is in the U.S., not Malta. Data source list.

Source Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

Certain global cities dominate the ranks: Los Angeles, for instance, isn’t just America’s second largest city; it’s also the second-largest Salvadoran city and fourth-largest Guatemalan city. London is Ireland’s third-largest city as well as France’s sixth largest. You’ll find more Dominicans in New York City than any other in the world — except the Dominican Republic’s capital, Santo Domingo. 

And the combined urban area of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates hosts so many emigrant communities that it would be Sri Lanka’s second largest city, Bangladesh’s third, Pakistan’s fifth, Lebanon’s eighth and India’s 13th. 

It’s not just about tiny migrant-sending countries: Four of the top five cities for Nepalis exist outside of Nepal (a country of 30 million), while Bangladesh (with half the population of the U.S.) has emigrant communities in the UAE and Saudi Arabia that beat out all but its two largest cities.


Four of the five largest cities for Nepalis exist outside of Nepal (the fifth is Mumbai, India). Data source list.

Source Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

Diaspora communities tend to concentrate in a small number of foreign cities in a process academics call “cumulative causation.” If a potential migrant knows somebody who has already moved to a certain city, then they are very likely to follow the same path. So migration patterns and networks are self-reinforcing, says professor Nikola Sander from the Population Research Center at the University of Groningen.

The root cause of the initial connection is often colonial history or linguistic ties (as in the case of Surinamese emigrants in the Netherlands). But sometimes it is more circumstantial, says professor Jørgen Carling, a researcher specializing in emigration from Cape Verde. The reason for the sizable Cape Verdean diaspora in Massachusetts, he says, goes back to the early 19th century. Back then, whaling ships based in New England stopped off on the island off the northwest coast of Africa. 


Two of the three largest Surinamese communities are not in Suriname, but in its former colonial power, the Netherlands. Data source list.

Source Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

In fact, it is often reported that Cape Verde has more emigrants than remaining residents. In many “hollowed-out nations,” says Carling, the scale of emigration is so large that many of those left behind also dream of leaving, but are unable because of legal constraints as immigration policies have tightened across the world. This “involuntary immobility” can be hugely problematic, says Carling, when young people do not invest in education, entrepreneurship or building themselves a local career, their hopes pinned on emigration.

Beyond the economics of remittances and brain drain, hollow nations foster hollow societies too. Although Cape Verde is a relatively wealthy country by African standards, “the feeling of isolation” has long been significant for those remaining, says Carling; “People felt claustrophobic to be stuck there.” Social media, though, is transforming life in the country, with many young Cape Verdeans boasting several thousand friends on Facebook. “They’re incredibly networked,” says Carling. “People [now] talk about that connectivity as making it possible to live a good life in Cape Verde.” 


For Armenia and several other countries in the former USSR, communities of immigrants in Russia rival the largest domestic cities. Data source list.

Source Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

On the flip side of the migration story — the receiving end — some 20 cities each have more than a million foreign-born residents. New York and London aren’t the only global economic, cultural and demographic hubs; Dubai, Riyadh and other Gulf cities attract millions of South Asian migrants. Cities in Russia get migrants from the former Soviet Union. People from throughout Asia head to Hong Kong, Singapore and elsewhere. “There’s not one single destination of migration and one single origin,” says Sander, who co-created a visualization of global people flows. “Everybody moves.” 

Forced migration, sadly, plays ever more of a role in the global migration story, with more Syrian refugees in each of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan than the entire European Union. Perhaps the ultimate hollow nation (depending whom you ask, as its nationhood remains in question) is Palestine, where the number of refugees in its global diaspora exceeds the population of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by around 30 percent. 


The number of Palestinian refugees abroad exceeds the population of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip by around 30 percent. Data source list.

Source Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

A word of caution: The data behind these comparisons are of wildly varying levels of accuracy. There is no single global database of city-level migration stats — “a major research gap,” says Sander. Comparisons are particularly tricky when different sources disagree on where any given city’s boundaries lie — or even what an immigrant is (whether based on nationality or country of birth, with some organizations even including second-generation diaspora members). Besides being approximations, the data here are almost certainly incomplete, with many other inside-out nations and concentrated migration patterns that fail to show up in patchy data resources.

Nevertheless, the trends demonstrated by these inside-out nations and their external cities are here to stay. As the politics of immigration threatens to tear Western nations apart, it’s worth remembering that these countries have already been torn apart — by emigration.