Continuing the discussion on migration featured in the current issue of the New Scientist
Humans migrate. It is a characteristic of our species. Humanity has been on the move for millennia and it is no exaggeration to say that it has made us what we are today: an increasingly globalised society in which communication and transport make it simple (in principle) to cross borders. More than a million desperate people fled to Europe in 2015, but nearly 4000 died trying. Tens of thousands of lone children flee violence in Latin America across the US-Mexican border. There is no doubt that migration will increase as the world’s economy becomes more globalised, and as demographic and environmental pressures bite. Pledging to tighten borders has become a vote-winner around the world. Yet if you look at the issue it is clear that clamping down on immigration will not solve the problems that its opponents want to solve. Like it or not, migration is a fact of life and politicians are powerless to stop it.
Humans have always migrated. Tales of migration are central to our history. Migration is at the heart of modern life. The biggest emigration the world has ever seen, the mass movement of people from Europe to the New World occurred between 1850 and 1910. At its peak, over 2 million people a year were relocating. Nevertheless, the vast majority chose to stay put. On average, only 5 per cent of the population of Britain – among the biggest sources of migrants – left each decade.
Today, just 3.3 per cent of the world’s people are migrants, little more than in 1990. Even within the European Union, where citizens are free to live wherever they choose, only 2.8 per cent, 14 million people, now reside outside their native country.
“The idea that, without controls, everyone moves is contradicted by the evidence,” says Philippe Legrain at the London School of Economics. “Niger is next to Nigeria, Nigeria is six times richer and there are no border controls, but Niger is not depopulated. Sweden is six times richer than Romania, the EU permits free movement, but Romania is not depopulated.”
While enormous efforts have been made to permit free movement of goods and services and capital, labour remains highly restricted under a patchwork of national controls. This leads to absurdities. Industrialised countries with huge demographic challenges and consequent labour shortages are blocked from letting in foreigners desperate for jobs. That is because voters, often spurred on by politicians capitalising on fear and ignorance, think immigrants will steal their jobs, drive down their pay and hijack their social security. Yet none of that is true. Immigrants expand economies, innovation and prosperity. Few in power are prepared to acknowledge this.
As their birth rates plummet and citizens live longer, the wealthiest countries are desperately trying to bring in migrants to keep their economies afloat. Migrants are keeping our economies afloat. They account for half of the increase in the US workforce since 2005, and 70 per cent in Europe. Even so, the number of people of working age supporting each retiree over 65 is falling. In 2000, this “dependency ratio” was 4:1 across the European Union. Today it is 3.5:1. And even with current levels of migration it is set to fall to 2 by 2050.
In 2000, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs ran a detailed simulation to see how many immigrants would be needed to support the population over 65 in developed countries. They found that with no migration, Europe’s population is set to fall 17 per cent by 2050 – with a 30 per cent decrease in people of working age. To maintain overall numbers, the EU needs 850,000 immigrants per year – for comparison, the net migrant number from outside the EU in 2013 was 540,000. However, to keep the working-age population from falling, it needs nearly double that: 1.5 million a year. That would mean recent migrants and their children would account for 14 per cent of the UK population and over a third of Germany’s and Japan’s. Even then, the dependency ratio would be just over 2. The US fares better – current and expected migration kept its dependency ratio at 3. “Migration might be the most relevant force to have an impact on the age distribution in Europe to 2050,” says demographer Pablo Lattes, an author of the study. Germany, which has a shortfall of 1.8 million skilled workers, is keenly aware of this. Officials have been saying quietly at international meetings that this is why they have accepted so many of Europe’s current wave of refugees. In 2000, the government tried to bring in 20,000 foreign high-tech workers, but this was met with strong opposition from the public. Germany may hope refugees will be harder for people to object to.
The UK government, for example, has vowed to slash immigration and balance the books. It cannot do both at once. Its own advisers say that avoiding a budget deficit requires an influx of young, hard-working and tax-paying immigrants.
However, there is a factor fuelling hostility to immigration: tribalism. People accustomed to cultural uniformity fear the arrival of incomers who are different. Some of that fear derives from our evolutionary past: we are biologically primed to mistrust those we perceive as “other”. But the long, albeit complicated, history of cultural mixing demonstrates that this need not prevent peaceful coexistence. Multicultural societies are more harmonious and successful, but to make them work we must challenge our evolved tendencies to mistrust strangers. Xenophobia persists, says Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, who has found that people feel threatened by groups with different values of many kinds. Ethnic groups in modern cities often form enclaves rather than mixing randomly – which can foster strong local communities but also engenders wider mistrust. To live in multicultural societies, we will need to learn to get past such evolved tendencies.