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Journal Article

Gravity models do not explain, and cannot predict, international migration dynamics


Beyer,  Robert M.
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Schewe,  Jacob
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;


Lotze-Campen,  Hermann
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research;

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Beyer, R. M., Schewe, J., Lotze-Campen, H. (2022): Gravity models do not explain, and cannot predict, international migration dynamics. - Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 9, 56.

Cite as: https://publications.pik-potsdam.de/pubman/item/item_26554
The major social and economic impacts of international migration have led to a strong interest in better understanding the drivers of cross-border movement. Quantitative models have sought to explain global migration patterns in terms of economic, social, climatic, and other variables, and future projections of these variables are increasingly being used to forecast international migration flows. An important implicit assumption in the most widely used class of these approaches, so-called gravity models, is that their parameterisation based on panel data enables them to describe the effects of predictor variables on migration flows across both space and time, i.e., that they explain flow variation both across country pairs at a given time and across time for a given country pair. Here we show that this assumption does not hold. Whilst gravity models describe spatial patterns of international migration very well, they fail to capture even basic temporal dynamics, indeed, often worse than even the time-invariant average of the historical flows. We show that standard validation techniques have been unable to detect this important limitation of gravity models due to the different orders of magnitude of migration flows across spatial corridors, on the one hand, and over time, on the other hand. Our analysis suggests that gravity-model-based inferences about the effects that certain variables have had, or will have, on international migration over time may in reality represent statistical artefacts rather than true mechanisms. We argue that future predictions based on gravity models lack statistical support and that, in its current form, this class of models is not suited for informing policy makers about migration trajectories in the coming years and decades.