Prospects for refugees and migrants if the population bomb goes bust

Jul 23, 2020

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) says that the UN projections up to 2100 for global population growth are about 2 billion too high, because fertility rates almost everywhere are dropping much faster than expected.

The UK medical journal The Lancet published the study, which asserts accelerated decline in fertility, due to greater access to contraception, and more education for women and girls. As well, the IHME paper says “Our forecasts for a shrinking global population have positive implications for the environment, climate change, and food production, but possible negative implications for labour forces, economic growth, and social support systems in parts of the world with the greatest fertility declines.” (Spoiler: keep reading for the answer to this.)

The IHME’s estimates are lower than those of the other academic forecaster,

the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis– Wittgenstein Centre (IIASA) in Vienna, the preferred source of the IPCC for their climate modelling. The IIASA adds urbanisation as an important change factor and is highlighted in Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson’s 2019 book “The Empty Planet”. Written for a general audience by a journalist and a pollster, the book also promotes a lower population outcome and, unlike the institutional reports, gives a ground level view of what governments and experts in a number of countries think about the dynamics of demography and migration. Their final comment is that “population decline is not a good thing or a bad thing. But it is a big thing. It’s time to look it in the eye.”

But the dominant influence is the UN’s “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision” which estimates 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Against this, the IHME study predicts peak population as 9.7 billion in 2064, dropping to 8.8 billion by 2100. If the new report is correct, 23 countries such as Japan, Thailand, Spain, Italy, Poland and South Korea will see their populations halved by 2100, China by 48% and India by 24%. By 2100, 183 of 195 countries will not have the fertility rates required to maintain their population. By weight of numbers, sub-Saharan Africa’s population will triple in the next 80 years, despite its fertility rates declining from 4.6 births per woman in 2017 to 1.7 by 2100. It may surprise that the study says that the countries with the largest immigration demand in absolute numbers for 2100 will be USA, India, and China.

What about Australia? The IHME forecast for the USA, Australia and Canada is that net immigration will allow them to probably maintain their working-age populations. For 2100, the forecast reference scenario for Australia is 36.34 million, or 31.06 million if the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) policies are implemented. Total Fertility Rates are 1.86 (2017), and predicted as 1.69 (2100 reference), or 1.52 (2100 SDG).

Technical experts will continue to debate these highly complex models, but there seems to be a consensus emerging, despite the differences and uncertainties. The new study has concentrated more closely on how changes to education levels and availability of contraception influence fertility, rather than extrapolate past trends. How the parameters of these relationships might change in future is uncertain, and unknown climate change outcomes will also affect migration patterns. An important issue is the set of plausible assumptions about access to education and contraception, decades from now. “The best solutions for sustaining current population levels, economic growth and geopolitical security are open immigration policies and social policies supportive of families having their desired number of children,” said Christopher Murray, the director of the IHME. Coercion by nativist-inspired national governments in limiting access is a potential danger, but ramping up domestic birth rates rarely seems viable.

So back to the present: ending official hostilities would start a pathway out of the enormous and intractable situation for the globe’s 106 million migrants, and stateless or displaced refugees, living and dying in miserable conditions, with no permanent answers apparent, only hand to mouth support at best. The Discussion section of the IHME paper points to the negative effects of the “inverted age pyramid” – on innovation, geopolitical power shifts, growth inhibited by higher taxation etc. Yet tens of millions of workers and their families are eager to become contributors – as workers, entrepreneurs, taxpayers and citizens – and provide the health support and aged care needed in ageing societies. Leadership voices in receiving countries are needed to “change the conversation”.

If these new projections become accepted, an opening is created for a policy rethink in favour of immigration and refugees. The IHME paper asserts that population size and composition are not exogenous factors for countries to account for in planning, but outcomes they can help direct. The mantra “don’t waste the opportunity presented by a crisis” is relevant for today’s leaders to take the long view. A first mover advantage is there for active labour recruitment, as countries currently producing emigrants may not still be doing so while they develop domestically over future decades.

Competition for talent should be enough to cause some leaders to break ranks, and commit to take a stand against domestic racism, including within their national elites, where it is often disguised as environmental or cultural protection. As George Monbiot put it “Where population growth is highest, consumption tends to be extremely low. Almost all the growth in numbers is in poor countries largely inhabited by black and brown people…When wealthy people…point to this issue without the necessary caveats, they are saying, in effect, “it’s not Us consuming, it’s Them breeding.”

To be successful, refugee advocates everywhere need to discard their moral ruler as the only guide, and accept enlightened self-interest, in order to get political traction. The wonderful SBS TV series “Where are you really from?” shows how just getting people embedded into a community will generate attitudinal change, if official support is there. After all, despite our contemporary halo of a successful multicultural country, Australian historian John Hirst said about post-WW2 refugees, “These victims of war were never depicted as people who had suffered much and needed a new home; they were to be welcomed because they were useful.” And over time, it expanded in its effect, and worked.

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