Urbanization & Migration in the Developing World

June 17, 2015

This lesson presents the scale of recent urbanization in different global regions and the diverse roles that migrants play in contributing to urbanization. The following graph, map, video, and news report provide a general overview of urbanization trends since 1950, in addition to specific stories of urban migrants in Asia.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
III. WORLD HISTORY G. Age of empires and Revolutions, 1640 - 1920: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the effects of the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century.
III. WORLD HISTORY I. The Post-War Period, 1945 - Present: Students will describe and analyze processes of "globalization" as well as persistent rivalries and inequalities among the world's regions, and assess the successes and failures of various approaches to address these.
V. GEOGRAPHY C. Spatial Organization: Students will use the concepts of push and pull factors to explain the general patterns of human movement in the modern era, including international migration, migration within the United States and major migrations in other parts of the world.


Many cities throughout the developing world have recently experienced unprecedented rates of urbanization, largely fueled by the influx of migrants, both domestic and international. Rapidly growing cities often lack the infrastructure necessary to provide housing, water and sanitation to their increasing populations, leading to the growth of slums and shanty towns. Even as migrants may build their lives in slums, in many cases, they do not have secure claims to their homes or livelihoods. Migrants may face evictions, and slums can be destroyed to make way for new, more profitable developments. Although migrants may live in squalid and unsanitary conditions, and experience poverty and insecure livelihoods, they also constitute a workforce that is crucial to growing urban economies. Often this workforce is segmented according to racial, ethnic, class-based, and religious differences. While internal migration mostly contributes to urbanization in some countries, such as China, the converse situation is true in the other states like the United Arab Emirates, where most of the working population consists of foreign migrants (about 85% of the country's population). This migrant population is recruited from countries throughout Asia, and has helped to construct newly economically booming cities such as Dubai. Although most of this migrant population consists of low-wage laborers, who definitely are confronted by numerous challenges, migrants throughout the rapidly urbanizing cities of the developing world have also started to organize and contest their marginalization.


The following four sources provide a global overview of urbanization trends, as well as some perspectives of urban migrants.

  1. Graph based on data from the United Nations World Urbanization Prospects study showing the percentage of urban populations in different regions historically and projected into the future.
    Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat. 2007. World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision and World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision.
    Urbanization & Migration in the Developing World
  2. Interactive map made by the BBC portraying cities with over 5 million people at various points in time from 1955 to 2015. 
    BBC News. Interactive Map: Urban Growth
  3. Video produced by Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), an independent news and analysis service affiliated with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. This video documents the impact of rapid urbanization with stories of Bangladeshi immigrants living in a densely populated slum in Pakistan. 
    IRIN News. 2008. Bangladesh-Pakistan: Bangladeshi migrants struggle in Karachi slum. IRIN News.
  4. New York Times article on foreign workers in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the attempts of the UAE government for appeasement and reforms. The article also includes a link to 13 photographs of foreign workers in Dubai. 
    DeParle, Jason. 2007. Fearful of Restive Foreign Labor, Dubai Eyes Reforms. New York Times
    View the full gallery of photographs.

Discussion Questions

  1. How has urbanization differed throughout time in different regions? Which regions are experiencing the most rapid pace of urbanization presently, and which regions will account for the highest rate and volume of urbanization in the future?
  2. Compare and contrast the lives of the migrants portrayed in the article on Dubai and the video about Karachi. Why did they migrate and what are their aspirations? Where do they live and what rights do they have in their present residences? How are their sources of insecurity similar and how do they differ?
  3. How did the migrant workers in Dubai fight for their rights and what were the consequences? How does the government official in Dubai justify not allowing unions, and what does his justification imply about the social location of migrants from countries in South Asia?

High School Discussion Questions

  1. With so many migrants living in what seems like less than adequate conditions, why do they continue to migrate?
  2. Evaluate the impact of race, ethnicity and class on urbanization and migration over time.

Suggested Readings

Li Zhang. 2001. Strangers in the City: Reconfigurations of Space, Power, and Social Networks within China's Floating Population. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.View