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Wednesday, April 8, 2020
NEW YORK, Mar 9 2020 (IPS) - The answer to the critical question of how many immigrants will there be in the future is: far below the number of people wanting to immigrate and far above the number of immigrants wanted. The discrepancy between the two opposing migration “wants” underlies the current divisive migration crisis sweeping the globe.
Surveys report that 15 percent of the world’s population, more than one billion people, would migrate to another country if they could. Moreover, the proportions wanting to move to another country are considerably higher in some developing regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa (33 percent), Latin America (27 percent) and Middle East and North Africa (24 percent).
Some countries in developed regions also have relatively high proportions wanting to immigrate, such as Russia (20 percent).
However, the current annual number of immigrants, about 5 million, is a just small fraction of the billion plus people wanting to immigrate. The total number of immigrants worldwide is also comparatively small, about 275 million or less than a quarter of those wanting to immigrate (Figure 1).
In addition, right-wing and populist parties and nationalist groups in virtually every region of the world are putting increasing pressure on governments to oppose and resist accepting immigrants, especially those coming from very different cultures. Those parties and groups are also urging authorities to deport those migrants residing unlawfully in the country.
The anti-immigrant sentiment has also spread to include refugees and asylum seekers. Government policies to stem the tide of illegal immigrants are undermining the established rights and protections granted to refugees and asylum seekers. While in theory refugees have the right to cross borders in search of asylum, in reality countries are trying to prevent them from entering their territories.
Most recently, Greece, Bulgaria and other members of the European Union are alarmed that Turkey, which hosts the largest number of refugees, close to 4.1 million, is not restraining hundreds of thousands asylum seekers in its territory from reaching Europe.
In addition to many EU member countries, many other countries have policies to restrict refugee and asylum access, including Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, United Kingdom and the United States.
The number of refugees worldwide in 2019 has more than doubled in the past decade, reaching approximately 26 million. In addition, UNHCR estimates that there are more than 3 million asylum seekers, 4 million stateless people and 41 million internally displaced persons.
While allowing countries to retain control over their borders, international laws, treaties and conventions also aim to protect and assist refugees and asylum seekers. However, the definitions of a refugee and legitimate asylum seeker are open to political interpretation, resulting in ongoing struggles in country capitals over who is covered and who is not.
In addition to those fleeing persecution, growing numbers of people are becoming refugees due to human rights violations and armed conflict. Humanitarian emergencies, widespread poverty and climate change are producing desperate people who have slim chances of migrating to another country other than arriving at its borders seeking asylum.
Also recently, a landmark ruling by the United Nations human rights committee found that it is unlawful for governments to return people to countries where their lives might be threatened by a climate crisis. Under such a judgment, tens of millions of people could be displaced and become refugees in the near future due to life-threatening climate and environmental changes.
However, the definition of climate refugee remains an open issue for governments and international organizations.
Anticipating the future flows of international migration is a challenging undertaking that is affected by economic, political, social and environmental factors in sending, transiting and receiving countries.
Nevertheless, population projections with explicit assumptions on the expected net number of migrants in the future are useful as they provide insight about the effects of future migration on a population’s size, age structure and composition.
The United Nations population projections, for example, provide two scenarios, the medium and zero migration variants, for the future net number of immigrants for all countries and regions. In brief, the future net numbers of immigrants in the medium variant are assumed to remain unchanged at approximately current levels throughout the remainder of the 21st century (Figure 2).
For analysts perhaps the safest answer politically is to assume immigration levels in the future will remain about the same as today, which seems to be the practice in most population projections. In the United States, for example, the main case scenario in the Census Bureau’s population projections to 2060 assumes net immigration levels will continue at slightly more than one million per year.
The politically safest answer, however, does not seem the most likely. Given a world approaching 8 billion inhabitants with unbalanced wealth and resources and unbalanced demographic trends compounded by climate change, it appears most likely that migration levels will be substantially higher in the coming decades.
Today more people are immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons than ever before. Those numbers have also been increasing, not declining, as more developing countries struggle with armed conflict, corruption, crime, hunger, poverty, unemployment, climate change and fragile governments.
It is therefore understandable that huge numbers of people in developing regions want to move to another country, typically a wealthy more developed country.
If the future is indeed more immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, what will be the responses of migrant-receiving countries? Their current policies are basically to build walls and fences, tighten borders, institute travel bans, limit refugees, restrict asylum seekers and deport migrants unlawfully resident. Given today’s record-breaking numbers of immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers and others on the move, those policies do not seem to be achieving their intended goals.
Some advocate taking stronger anti-immigrant measures, such as refusing boat migrants ports to land, creating hostile environments for immigrants, using tear gas and water cannons, placing minefields along the border and shooting “infiltrators”.
They contend that if they do not stop the immigrant invasion and gain control over their borders, they will be overwhelmed and loose their culture and way of life as has happened in the past and is happening today in a number of countries.
Others have concluded that it is inevitable that there will be more immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers in the future. Rather than deny this likely trend, they recommend that countries make appropriate plans to deal with the expected migration increases.
While the number of immigrants in the future is a matter of heated debate, nearly all agree: people on the move – be they immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers – will remain a controversial and divisive political issue for the foreseeable future.
*Joseph Chamie, a former director of the United Nations Population Division, is currently an independent consulting demographer.
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