24 July 2018

The Future of Migration

Migration has become one of the leading political issues around the world today and is the issue that is driving so many of the political changes that have impacted the world in recent years.  In many areas of the world, migration is fueling a higher degree of anxiety than nearly any other and is the issue that has been used by politicians on all sides to increase support for their protectionist and isolationist policies.  Of course, migration is not a new issue as it has been driving many of the world’s most important economic and geopolitical changes, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the United States.  Sometimes, migration can be a force for good, as evidenced by its role in the development of New World economies such as the United States, Canada and Australia.  However, it can also cause harmful disruptions, either to the populations already in place where the migrants arrive (ask the Native Americans or Australia’s Aborigines), or to those areas from where the migrants have departed.  Looking ahead, it is foolish to think that migration will come to an end.  Sometimes, it can be delayed or re-routed, but migration will continue as many factors push people out of their countries or pull them to new homes.  The questions facing many countries in the 21st century is whether or not migration can be controlled and whether it can benefit all involved.

A number of factors are fueling migration and these can be divided into push and pull factors. 

Push factors are those developments that drive people out of their home countries or regions.  These include: 

  • Population growth: High rates of population growth often force people to leave their homes in search of areas where population growth or population density is lower.  Europe’s population explosion in the 19th century was a key catalyst for the flood of emigration from that region during that period.
  • Lack of jobs: When the level of job creation lags behind the rate of working-age population growth, migration often occurs as people seek employment abroad.  Low levels of job creation growth in many areas of the Middle East and North Africa are a key driver of emigration from that region today.
  • Lack of resources: Rising populations often lead to shortages of water, food or arable land, forcing people to leave their homes in source of places with more abundant resources.  This has been a key driver of migration from the earliest days of human history and led to the spread of humanity across the globe.
  • Instability and persecution: Conflict and persecution have forced people to move from their homes throughout human history and have been among the leading drivers of migration in the modern world.  Rome’s Empire fell, in part, as a result of the flood of migrants fleeing unrest in Eurasia after the 3rd century CE.

Meanwhile, pull factors are those factors that attract migrants to another country or region.  These include:

  • Growing economies: Migrants from countries with low economic growth rates or low levels of wealth are often attracted to regions where economic growth and wealth levels are higher.  This is why regions such as North America, Europe and the Arabian Peninsula are attracting so many migrants today.
  • Higher wages: In addition to being attracted to destinations with healthier economies, many migrants are simply seeking to increase their earning potential by leaving their homes for places where wages are higher.  The large numbers of Central and East Europeans who went to work in West Europe in recent decades is a good example of this.
  • Labor shortages: Declining working-age populations, either the result of low birth rates or wars, have resulted in labor shortages in many parts of the world, attracting migrants from places where jobs are scarce or where wages are low.  The surge in the number of workers from Turkey and southern Europe into Germany in the decades after World War Two is an example of this factor.
  • Stability: For migrants fleeing instability or persecution, stability can be the most attractive aspect of a potential destination.  For migrants fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East, Central Asia or Africa, or those fleeing rising levels of violence in places such as Central America, the relative stability of Europe or North America is a major attraction.

Judging by the push and pull factors, it is relatively easy to determine where the next waves of migration will come from.  These areas include: 

  • Sub-Saharan Africa: One obvious choice is Sub-Saharan Africa, as the population of this region is forecast to grow from 1.1 billion today to an astounding 2.4 billion by the year 2050, basically the equivalent of adding a new India to the world in just one generation.  With water and arable land stretched ever more thinly, and with conflicts destabilizing many areas of the region, Sub-Saharan Africa is likely to see a major increase in emigration in the coming years. 
  • Middle East and North Africa: The Middle East and North Africa is one of the leading sources of emigration in the world today, and this trend is likely to continue in the decades ahead.  Not only is population growth quite high in many areas of this region, but its water and land resources are already stretched quite thinly.  Add to this the conflicts that continue to beset the region and it is easy to imagine that large numbers of emigrants will be leaving this region in the future.
  • Central and South Asia: Already home to nearly two billion people, Central and South Asia continues to see some of the highest rates of population growth in the world.  While economic growth in places such as India and Bangladesh is very high, poverty remains a major problem, and serious conflicts continue to rage in many areas of this region.
  • Latin America: While population growth has slowed significantly in most areas of Latin America in recent decades, emigration levels from some areas of this region remain high.  On one hand, Central America’s ongoing instability has resulted in higher rates of emigration, mostly to the United States.  On the other hand, the economic collapse of Venezuela has highlighted that even once-successful countries can face a surge in emigration if their economies are mismanaged.

Not only is it clear from which regions migration will emanate from the coming years, but it is also clear which regions will remain the most attractive for migrants.  Here are four such regions: 

  • Europe: Europe’s location near to the Middle East and Africa means that it will continue to face the highest level of migration pressures in the coming years.  Not only is Europe far wealthier than the unstable regions that surround it, but it also has a working-age population that is declining, resulting in major labor shortages.  This will likely result in more migrants attempting to reach Europe in the future, something that will fuel more support for anti-immigration policies there.
  • North America: North America’s geographical separation from most of the world’s most populous regions allows it to exercise a much greater degree of control over immigration than, for example, Europe.  Most migration to North America will continue to come from the more unstable regions of Latin America and this will continue to fuel support for more immigration controls, particularly in the US.  Nevertheless, with labor shortages growing, some migration will be needed.
  • Arabian Peninsula: The wealthier countries of the Arabian Peninsula remain a major destination for migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central and South Asia.  However, as these countries’ oil booms have come to an end, and as their domestic populations are growing rapidly, the pressure is on the governments of this region to stem to flow of immigrants into their countries.
  • Asia-Pacific: Most developed countries in the Asia-Pacific region have in place very strict controls concerning immigration and this has allowed them to manage the number of migrants that enter those countries.  However, as emigration levels from regions such as Central and South Asia rises, the number of migrants attempting to reach the wealthier areas of the Asia-Pacific region is also likely to rise.

Without a doubt, migration will remain one of the most important topics facing the world in the years and decades to come and will have major implications for the future of the global economy and for international security.  For regions with high rates of population growth, scarce resources or low levels of job creation, emigration will be needed to reduce demographic and environmental pressures at home.  Without emigration, these regions may be condemned to a future filled with instability and poverty as their resources and economies are stretched beyond their limits.  Worse, should population growth continue at the same time as emigration is blocked, the instability in these regions could spread far beyond their borders, as evidenced in recent years by the migration crisis caused by conflicts, economic troubles and resource depletion in the Middle East and North Africa. 

Meanwhile, even with the promise of automation, many developed economies will need higher numbers of skilled and unskilled workers in the future if they are to continue to expand economically.  Furthermore, as the populations of these developed economies age, and as birth rates continue to decline, it will become impossible for the social systems in place in these countries to be maintained without an influx of working-age immigrants.  Of course, these flows must be managed, and the countries that are attracting the bulk of these immigrants have the right to determine who enters their countries.  However, the rise in anti-immigration sentiment in the US, Europe and elsewhere threatens to cut off what had been one of the major drivers of their economic success.  Therefore, the issue of migration will be one of the great questions of the 21st century and how it is managed will likely play a major role in determining the level of security, stability and economic growth that the world records in the coming decades.