International migration in a changing world

Demographers have been examining the reasons for the decline in the rate of human fertility

Shahid Javed Burki November 08, 2020
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

“The world is changing and is changing rapidly.” This is the theme I have explored in some of my recent writings including in the book, Rising Powers and Global Governance, published in New York and London a few years. The book focused on how some of the more important countries in the global system were changing and how these changes were likely to play out in the future. The book saw change coming from several different directions. Among the most important are those resulting from demographic developments and from the challenge China is throwing at the United States. Today I will briefly deal with the first of these two contributors to change.

I write this article two days after the Americans voted to elect their president, some senators, the entire House of Representatives, several governors, and state legislatures. Given that 100 million people went for early voting rather than take the risk of joining large crowds that would have been inevitable in the case of in-person voting, counting the returns took time. The election was close. If Joe Biden wins, his administration will have palpable impact on the two factors I have identified above as the main contributors to global change: demography and the rise of China. The Trump administration made no secret of its opposition to in-migration: the coming into the country of people of colour especially if they followed the Islamic faith. Although Trump claimed friendship with Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, his government adopted a number of policies that hurt China-US relations. With Biden in the White House, both policy areas would be based on his assessment of long-term consequences for the country he was elected to lead.

Almost all developed nations are experiencing sharp population declines resulting in reducing the share of what can be called “native populations” in total. By native I mean the white people who were the predominant presence before the rate of population began to fall, in some cases perceptibly. By the middle of next year, more children will be born to people of colour than those who are white. In the mid-2040s, the white in America would be in minority.

Assimilation is not the only problem migrants moving into developed nations face. For illegal migrants from Africa headed to Europe, migration is dangerous. Most travel by sea, leaving Africa’s coast in rickety and dangerous boats. The preferred routes are from Libya to one of the ports in Italy or from Senegal to Canary Islands in Spain. Fifteen years ago, the second was a busy route. In 2006, more than 32,000 migrants from West and Central Africa traveled along the Western African maritime route. According to the International Organization for Migration, in 2019, there were 2,698 migrants in the Canary Islands. For 2020, this number grew to more than 6,000 in just the first nine months of this year. But the route is dangerous. On November 2, a boat carrying 150 people capsized, killing all those who were on board. A week earlier a similar accident claimed 140 lives.

When we think or write about international migration it usually refers to the movement of millions of people from the crowded countries in the South to the states in the North. Crowding is not the only reason for the movement of people from the developed to the developing parts of the world. It’s also the result of sharp decline in the rate of population growth in countries in Europe and North America and in Australia and New Zealand. There are several countries in Europe that now have negative rates of population growth. This is the result of a sharp reduction in human fertility and also because of migration of people from some developed countries to those that are rich. I will have more to say on this later in this article.

Demographers have been examining the reasons for the decline in the rate of human fertility. This, they believe, has happened for both economic and socio-cultural reasons. Women in the developed world who have entered the work force in large numbers and having become breadwinners find it expensive to have large families and spend too much time bearing and rearing children. Women have also been able to reduce the influence of men on their lives. Movements such as “Me too” have made it clear that women are no longer willing to allow men to rule over them. This change in women’s perception of their own status in life has had consequences for human fertility. It has reduced the rate of population increase.

Economic growth is the result of a combination of factors. The rate of population growth, changes in human productivity and capital accumulation all play a role. Productivity depends on education and training. The movement of people from developing to developed countries is often described as brain drain since a good proportion of those who leave poor countries and settle in rich states are better educated and trained than the average of population they have left behind. It is now recognised that migrants who move from the developed to developing world make a quantifiable contribution to the countries they settle in. They don’t fit the description of migrants Trump made when he went down the golden escalator to announce his candidacy for the US presidency.

One good example of the contribution immigrants are making to developments in the countries they moved to is the work done using artificial intelligence (AI) by two Indian scientists now working in the US. Murali Arvamudan and Venky Soundararjan co-founded an AI startup that has made headlines for their research on massive data yielded by health institutions dealing with Covid-19. Using their work, scientists are staring to make connections in the jumble of letters and numbers with the help of AI leading to new theories about the virus, how it works, and how it could be stopped.

The 2020 elections created some unfamiliar stresses in the US. Wade Davis, an anthropologist, the author of an essay “The Unraveling of America”, published by Rolling Stone, saw the developing situation in the country to be unlike any other in the past. This is so even when compared with the tumultuous 1960s with anti-war protests and riots. “What is happening has no precedent in American history,” he wrote. Americans are choosing between being emotionally exhausted in their own country or potentially feeling alienated abroad, he said. “It takes a lot to pry oneself away from their neighbourhoods, their homes, their families. No matter who wins the election, the problems won’t be solved right away.” According to Dan Prescher, senior editor of, traffic related to moves out of the US has surged 1,676% over the last five months. Most outmigration by Americans is to Australia and Canada. He attributes this to unprecedented political divisiveness, uncertainty about healthcare and the rising visibility of militarised hate groups in the US. If this trend continues, the white population in the US would become a minority sooner than demographers predict at this time.


Published in The Express Tribune, November 9th, 2020.

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