Sunday, 10 March 2013

Have more immigrants or fewer citizens?

That's the dilemma facing countries with declining and ageing populations
By Joseph Chamie, Published The Straits Times, 9 Mar 2013

AN INCREASING number of countries in the 21st century face a critical choice: more immigrants or fewer citizens.

At the forefront of this dilemma for the advanced countries is Japan, the population of which will decline by 14 per cent in the next four decades.

The simple, powerful force behind this predicament is demography. When deaths outnumber births, the unavoidable outcome is population decline - unless immigration makes up for the shortfall.

Today, deaths outnumber births in more than a dozen countries, including Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Portugal, the Russian Federation and Ukraine.

Another 24 countries are also expected to see their populations decline by mid-century, even assuming continuing immigration during the coming decades, ranging from a loss of 26 per cent for Georgia and Bulgaria to 14 per cent for Japan and 5 per cent for China.

If immigration were to stop altogether, the population declines for some of those countries, such as Austria, Germany, Italy and the Russian Federation, would be even greater than currently projected.

The underlying reason for deaths outnumbering births is not high death rates. It is simply because birth rates are falling below the replacement level of two births per woman. In the absence of immigration, if a country's average fertility rate remains below the average of about two births per woman, its population will eventually and inevitably shrink.

Currently, 76 countries, including Brazil, Canada, China, Cuba, Iran, Sweden, Thailand and Vietnam, have fertility rates below the replacement level, representing close to half of the world's population. In addition, one-third of those countries, notably Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea and Spain, have fertility levels of less than 1.5 births per woman.

If governments in countries with fertility rates persistently below replacement levels wish to stabilise their population size, then immigration is required to make up for the difference between deaths and births.

For example, the net number of immigrants needed to maintain Germany's current population of almost 82 million throughout the current decade is approximately 200,000 per year, about double the number currently assumed in United Nations population projections. The corresponding annual net numbers of immigrants needed for Japan and Russia to stabilise their populations are even greater, about 230,000 and 350,000, respectively, many times greater than their current immigration levels.

Even for countries that have fertility rates near the two-child replacement level, such as Australia, France, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States, immigration can have an enormous impact on future population growth.

In the UK, for instance, nearly 95 per cent of its population growth by mid-century is the result of immigration - both immigrants and their descendants.

Also, whereas the mid-century populations of Australia and the US with migration are projected to increase by 35 per cent and 27 per cent respectively, without immigration the projected increases in their populations fall to 10 per cent.

In addition to population growth, ageing is another demographic consideration. Many countries, especially those with below-replacement fertility rates, are facing marked shifts in their age structures, with increased numbers of the aged and declines of those of working age.

Even countries with fertility at replacement levels are closely looking at immigration to offset some effects of population ageing.

For example, with about a million immigrants a year, the US working-age population aged 20 to 64 is projected to increase by 17 per cent by mid-century. However, if immigration to the US were halted, its working-age population in 2050 would be about 1 per cent smaller than it is today.

Another demographic consideration is the composition of the immigrants. Many of those migrating today are ethnically, religiously and culturally different from the populations of the receiving countries, boosting anxiety about integration and cultural integrity and fears about ethnic conflict.

In countries such as Japan and South Korea, ethnic homogeneity is widely viewed as a positive characteristic. While foreign workers may add to the shrinking Japanese and Korean labour forces to effectively pay for the pensions and health care of the elderly, introducing large numbers of immigrants from other cultures is seen as increasing the chances of social unrest and violent clashes as are frequently reported in ethnically diverse nations throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and elsewhere.

While governments, business leaders and various ethnic, social and political organisations may view more immigrants as beneficial - a partial solution to addressing the consequences of declining and ageing populations, and sometimes even politically and economically advantageous - the general public appears less willing to accept the arrival of large numbers of immigrants.

The wide gap between public sentiment and government policy is clearly illustrated by the recent debates, demonstrations and protests in Singapore against government plans to increase immigration to make up for the country's low birth rate, which at 1.3 births per woman is nearly one child below the replacement level.

The public often perceives immigrants as threatening employment conditions and opportunities, depressing wages, increasing crime, driving up prices, contributing to declines in public education, raising the costs of local services and internal surveillance, and profiteering from social services entitlements.

Public sentiment in many countries is particularly negative towards those unlawfully resident and working in the country. Increased unemployment, poor enforcement of laws and regulations, and a flourishing shadow economy that relies on low-wage illegal workers also contribute to rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

Opinion polls in many countries frequently show that the majority of the public wishes to reduce current immigration levels and prefers that illegal immigrants return to their home countries. In Russia, for example, a recent survey found that two-thirds of the respondents wanted fewer immigrants and 73 per cent supported deporting those in the country illegally.

As is widely recognised, government efforts to raise low fertility rates to replacement levels seem highly unlikely at least for the foreseeable future. Therefore, demography dictates that when deaths outnumber births, population decline is unavoidable unless immigration makes up the shortfall.

As the working-age population drops and the numbers of the elderly rise, immigrants are brought in to sustain the economy, but it can prove destabilising for the society and politically risky.

Although governments may wish it to be different, the laws of demography can neither be repealed nor dismissed.

Fewer citizens or more immigrants - this remains a critical choice for an increasing number of countries throughout the 21st century.

Needs 200,000 immigrants every year to maintain its current population of almost 82 million throughout the current decade

Nearly 95 per cent of its population growth by mid-century is the result of immigration - both immigrants and their descendants

If immigration were halted, its working-age population in 2050 would be about 1 per cent smaller than it is today

The writer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division, recently stepped down as research director at the Centre for Migration Studies.

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