Opinion: as Europe's population declines and ages, it must accept significant immigration or face economic and social decline

Over the past three years, Europe has experienced the worst refugee and migration crisis since World War II.  While the flow of refugees from Syria has diminished as some eastern European countries have closed their borders and the EU has given €6 billion to Turkey to persuade it to keep Syrian refugees within its borders, the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa across the Mediterranean continues unabated.

The number of refugees entering Europe peaked in 2015 at just over one million. Half were Syrian, 20 percent from Afghanistan and seven percent from Iraq, with most of the remaining 33 per cent coming from Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015, 3,771 people drowned while crossing the Mediterranean crammed into unseaworthy and overcrowded boats by traffickers. Most of the migrants from sub-Saharan Africa are trying to reach Europe through Libya. The lack of an effective government in Libya has enabled people traffickers to operate almost unhindered out of Libyan ports and there are reports that some migrants are being sold as slaves in Libya.

"In 2015, 3,771 people drowned while crossing the Mediterranean crammed into unseaworthy and overcrowded boats by traffickers"

There has been much debate in Europe about the difference between refugees and economic migrants, with considerable sympathy for the former and considerable unease about the latter. When the flow of refugees from Syria was at its height, the number of economic migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa was obscured, but even at that time large numbers of African migrants were crossing the Mediterranean.

On a rescue mission at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in August 2015, Ireland’s navy ship, the LE Niamh rescued 125 people in an overcrowded inflatable boat off the Libyan coast. All the people on board were from Sub-Saharan African countries including Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast and Togo. While there is a simmering civil war in Mali, the other countries from which the migrants fled are relatively peaceful. The hopeless poverty of sub-Saharan Africa, where populations are growing faster than output, causes many people from the region to risk their lives to reach Europe

One of the most widespread misconceptions about economic growth is that it is a consequence of a decline in population growth. In 1798, the English clergyman, Thomas Malthus in his Essay on Population noted that while population increases geometrically, food supply increases only arithmetically. This led Malthus to conclude that most people were doomed to living on the edge of starvation. (Malthus did not hold out hope that contraception which he termed "vice" would lead to a reduced birth rate). 

A reduction in the growth of population is a consequence of economic growth, not its cause

But increases in agricultural productivity and the Industrial Revolution led to improvements in living standards which caused people to voluntarily reduce the birth rate which fell in the UK long before effective contraception became available. A reduction in the growth of population is a consequence of economic growth, not its cause.

Population growth in Europe began to slow towards the end of the 19th century as living standards rose and infant mortality fell, enabling people to plan how many children they would have. Population growth has slowed in Latin America and much of Asia over the past thirty years and many countries in those continents are now experiencing rapid improvements in living standards. In Africa, however, population is still growing and this growth may not level off until 2050.

In 1950, the population of Europe was 549 million. Today it is 743 million, but is expected to decline to 709 million by 2050. Africa’s population has grown from 230 million in 1950 to 1.2 billion today and is likely to be 2.4 billion by 2050 when the population of Nigeria alone may be one third greater than that of Europe. Today, Europe has 11 percent of the world’s population, but will have only six percent by the end of this century. In the absence of immigration, the populations of many European countries could fall by up to 50 percent by the end of this century

From RTÉ Radio One's This Week, a report on how aid spending is being devoted in greater amounts to measures focused on migration

Migration is determined by push and pull factors. Population explosion in sub-Saharan Africa is pushing many people to risk their lives to reach Europe. The impact of pull factors is shown by the suggestion over the past two years that the direct provision system for asylum seekers in Ireland might be ended. This possibility and the fall in unemployment has led to hundreds of people, all purporting to be asylum seekers, entering Ireland via Northern Ireland.

As Europe’s population declines and ages, it must accept significant immigration or face economic and social decline. Yet the limited immigration that has taken place over the past 30 years has already led to the rise of anti-immigration political movements and some of these, including Germany’s Alternativ fur Deutschland are achieving electoral success. The new Austrian government includes the vehemently anti-immigration Freedom Party, while Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary are all refusing to take their share of the refugees that the EU has agreed to accept from Syria.

Responding to the migrant camps at Calais in 2015, then British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond argued that Europe cannot protect its standard of living if it absorbs millions of immigrants from Africa. By contrast, recognising that Germany’s population will decline in the absence of immigration, Angela Merkel agreed to accept 800,000 Syrian refugees.  

Even unskilled migrants in the UK are less of a burden than opponents of immigration believe, as they were more likely to be employed than British born unskilled workers

The research on whether migrants are a benefit or a burden to the country to which they migrate shows that their impact depends on their skills and labour market conditions in the countries to which they migrate. OECD studies show that migrant workers fill niches in both fast growing and declining sectors of the economy. In most OECD countries, migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits.

In the UK, the net contribution is small, which may explain Hammond’s comments. But even unskilled migrants in the UK are less of a burden than opponents of immigration believe, as they were more likely to be employed than British born unskilled workers.

Because of the inexorable decline of birth rates, Europe will need large numbers of migrants over the next 50 years. Some of these migrants will want the economic benefits of living in Europe while maintaining their own cultures, including such practices as forced marriages, honour killings, female genital mutilation and the persecution of gay people. Many immigrants to Europe will reject the rights and freedoms painfully achieved by western democracies over the past 200 years. Resolving this conflict of cultures will be the greatest challenge facing Europe over the next 50 years.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ