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"The Era of Migration - the next 25 years" by Lukas Gehrke and Martijn Pluim

16 May 2018

In 2018, ICMPD celebrates its 25th birthday. Such commemorative occasions regularly prompt celebration speeches and self-congratulatory statements about one’s own successes and achievements. While the history of ICMPD is rich in both, this article will try to steer clear of this form of narrative. Instead, we will take a look into the future and try to see what it may hold in terms of migration and mobility of people. We will do so by connecting the historic dots with the present day drivers and causes of migration, and then extend them into the future for another generation. This should not predict the future but provide a scenario how it might look like. This scenario will try to show how drivers and causes of migratory movements, as well as the policies designed to regulate them, have changed over time, or have deplorably remained unchanged. From there, we will aim to assess how the identified drivers could operate and interact to shape future migration. Even as we are getting better at understanding what drives migrants and migration, predicting future migration movements and patterns, as much as it is desired by politicians, policy makers and scientists, remains a rather inaccurate endeavour. In hindsight, the results usually look like badly-aged science fiction movies. What this article aims to do is to depict what is possible and plausible and what migration policy development should be prepared for – the essence of ICMPD’s work.

By Lukas Gehrke and Martijn Pluim 

25 years ago, when ICMPD was created, the world looked very different. The Cold War had come to an end and the fall of the Berlin Wall turned into the symbol for the dawning of a new era, one that would bring nations and people closer together. For many, it was an era of optimism, of greater opportunities and freedoms. In the wake of the New World Order, however, a whole new set of global challenges emerged. The massive uprooting of people caused by economic meltdowns, by wars of secession and disintegration, but also by global warming as well as the newly-gained freedom of movement, has created what we can call a mixed migration situation of unprecedented proportions. Global and regional regulatory frameworks were not adequately developed to provide meaningful answers to the complex questions of the time. Convinced that the political confrontations of the Cold War were over, the international community moved to tackle what it perceived as the key challenges to the common good, the dual crisis of environment and development. The results of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit of 1992 related to climate change and development were meant to provide the global framework for local, national and regional action. Considering where we are at today, we have to conclude that the ambitious Rio de Janeiro objectives were missed. With a view to the urgent issues, particularly in relation to climate change, it is painfully clear that the international community has not only failed in achieving the objectives, it has also missed an opportunity. As time went on, things have become significantly more complex. Today, we do not talk about a dual crisis anymore, but about a multiple crisis that runs much deeper and represents even more fundamental challenges to the global order. 

On the European level, in the meantime, the most ambitious and far-reaching regional integration project was well underway. In the past 25 years, the European Union grew from a group of 12 to an impressive 28 members, integrating some of the more prominent migrant-sending countries and thus making freedom of movement within its territory one of the fundamental principles. In the process of becoming one of the most prosperous regions in the world, Europe started to attract growing numbers of migrants – regular and irregular – who were looking for better lives and not only protection. Ironically, almost 25 years later it was exactly the attractiveness for international migrants, which put the EU in its deepest political crisis since decades. 


Drivers of Migration and Root Causes of Irregular Migration

So, what is it that drives international migration? What are the underlying motives and motivations of migrants who decide to leave their home country for another? What makes migrants decide on a specific country of destination over another? Questions about drivers and root causes are at the centre of the political debate in an attempt to reduce migratory pressures and flows. It is important, however, to underline that migration is influenced and driven by a host of micro- and macro-level factors which are inter-dependent and mutually reinforcing or mitigating. Some factors respond to short-term interventions, others unfold only over longer periods of time. Labour supply and demand as well as wage level differences influence and shape migration. A decision about migration, moreover, is often taken collectively, especially within households. Migration of selected family members may be used to mitigate risks and diversify income resources for an entire family. Historically grown migration systems and networks create the structures and connections between people at origin and destination, and influence migration patterns. International migration has been taking place within an increasingly complex set of national and international policies aimed at regulating and controlling immigration, admissions and flows. Migration policies, after all, shape and influence migration processes.

Given that many of these reasons relate to socio-economic situations, development processes will always have to be taken into account. The extent to which countries succeed in modernising and developing relevant public sectors will have an impact on migration. The widely-held view is that the more a country advances in its development processes, the less migration it will produce, as its labour market is capable of providing jobs for its existing labour force. More often than not, however, the reality is quite different. Development is often accompanied by transition processes which change demographic and mobility structures. At first, populations grow and, together with a youth bulge, this normally implies unemployment and increased emigration pressure. There is evidence, however, that this pressure reduces and emigration rates start to fall when countries reach certain income levels, i.e. above an income per capita (ppp) of US$ 7,000-8,000. At a certain point, moreover, the growing income levels start to create increasing demand for immigration and enhance the absorption capacities for migrant labour.


World Population and Share of International Migrants

Let us now take a look at how the world population is going to develop. Considering that the share of international migrants has remained relatively stable at around 3 percent of the total world population over the last five decades, this might give us a good idea of how international migration is going to develop over time. In 1990, the world population stood at around 5.3 billion people, out of which approximately 152 million people were counted as international migrants, or 2.9 percent. Today, in 2017, there are about 7.6 billion people and some 258 million international migrants, or 3.4 percent. During the same period, the average share of migrants of the total population in Europe grew from 6.8 percent in 1990, to 7.7 percent in 2000 and to around 10 percent in 2015 – with an emigrant share of 8.4 percent of its population. According to UN predictions, in 2050, the total world population will be around 9.3 billion. Applying today’s share of 3.4 percent, the number of international migrants could grow to 316 million. A deviation by one-tenth of a percent would mean an increase or decrease of close to 10 million international migrants. According to the same estimations, more specifically, the total population of Africa could grow from around 1.6 billion today to 2.5 billion in 2050, and Asia’s population from 4.5 billion to 5.2 billion in the next 30 years. During the same period, the UN predicts decreasing numbers for Europe (from 742 million to 715 million). If these predictions are correct, we will see a continued increase in the number of international migrants. Population growth in combination with economic development, as shown above, will be the strongest drivers of migration in the coming decades. Considering that African migration is under-represented today, with only 2.8 percent of Africans being a migrant, we can expect a considerable increase in African migrants. This, in effect, would make the African continent becomes more mobile; first and foremost in the form of regional, south-south migration, but also in the form of south-north migration, with the primary destination of Europe.


Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The images of desperate people risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea in rickety rubber dinghies and crossing half of Europe on foot in the search for protection and a better future are still very much alive in the collective memory. In a discussion about the future of migration, the aspect of refugee protection requires a special place. One of the underlying questions in this context seems to be whether the experiences of 2015 and 2016 are the result of exceptional circumstances, of a perfect storm, or rather the harbinger of the new normal. To answer this question, let us take a closer look at some figures.

In 1993, UNHCR recorded some 20 million people of concern who were refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people (IDPs). With minor fluctuations, this number remained at this level until 2006. Since then, it has increased sharply to reach 67.75 million people in 2017. The number of globally displaced people has more than tripled over the last 25 years. Taking a closer look at these numbers, however, it becomes clear that the main contributing factor to this increase is the sharp rise in the number of IDPs: in 1993, UNHCR counted around 4.2 million. In 2005, there were some 6.6 million IDPs on record and by 2017 the number had reached the all-time record of 36.6 million people displaced by conflict in their own country.

When it comes to providing protection, it is important to keep in perspective that the main refugee hosting countries in 2016 were Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda, Ethiopia, Jordan and Germany, which are, apart from Germany, countries neighbouring conflict zones.


These figures represent the global situation. How was Europe affected by these displacements? After a record of 672,000 applications in 1992, the European Community received approximately 516,000 asylum applications in 1993. This number decreased over the next few years to reach around 197,000 in 2006. It gradually increased over the next few years to jump significantly to approximately 627,000 applications in 2014, reaching the all-time high of 2015 and 2016 (estimated at 1.3 million and 1.2 million asylum applications respectively). At the time of writing, application numbers have started to drop sharply again. [1]

Finally, let us take a look at the countries of origin of the persons applying for asylum in Europe, and how the composition has changed over time. It is remarkable that, in 1993, more than 50% of asylum seekers came from Europe, including from two countries that have become members of the EU in the meantime. Today, asylum seekers mainly come from the conflict zones in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

As a result, are these exceptional circumstances or the new normal? The evidence base to determine this question is not yet solid enough. Depending on a few conditions, including nature and duration of conflicts, geographic location and proximity, and hosting capacities in the region, mass influx situations do occur in regular intervals. Consequently, it appears sensible to prepare for mass displacement situations. Population growth, combined with protracted conflict situations, will most likely lead to mass displacement also in the future. By definition, related flows always place a great strain on the reception capacities of hosting communities. Moreover, mass influx situations regularly overburden asylum systems. Against this background, crisis preparedness becomes ever more important.


Climate Change

There are several aspects that we need to keep in mind when we talk about the future of migration, especially when we assess possible long-term developments. Conflicts and bad governance, human rights violations and persecution are well-known reasons for forced displacement. The fact that a country cannot or does not afford protection to its citizens is the lynchpin of refugee protection. Beyond the grounds stipulated in the Geneva Convention, there are a number of additional causes of displacement emerging. Most prominently, impacts of the unfolding climate change processes, such as the sea-level rise and extreme weather events, including severe storms, droughts and heat waves, have started to affect millions of people. There are wide-ranging estimations about the number of people who may have to resort to migration as a coping strategy or who may suffer forced displacement. Estimations range from 25 million to 1 billion migrants by 2050, who – temporarily or permanently – move either within or outside their home countries. The most widely quoted estimate is based on the World Risk Report and concludes that climate change may trigger population movements of up to 200 million people. Climate-induced migration represents one of the most alarming migration-related challenges. While there are special initiatives underway that aim to better frame the issue and organise concerted action to mitigate the consequences, overall we may witness the forced displacement of millions of people through the effects of climate change.


Overcoming the crisis mode

25 years ago, the world was undergoing historic transformation processes. Despite the uncertainties and insecurities, there was a sense of optimism that the challenges of the time could be tackled successfully. Generally speaking, there was trust in institutions – on the national as well as the international level. This situation has changed. The trust levels have plummeted, not least due to the experiences of the recent migration related crises. The multitude and complexities of global challenges and crises and the shifts on the geo-political level do not make things easier. Global solidarity and multilateralism are at a low-point. While the circumstances may not be the best, the dynamic around migration and refugee protection has changed dramatically over the last 5 years. The Sustainable Development Goals provide a comprehensive catalogue of goals and targets that directly address most of the drivers and so-called root causes of migration. We should however not expect that there will be less migration, particularly not in the short run. Certainly, however, there will be more orderly and regular migration. Moreover, the two Global Compacts will reinforce the global governance of migration and refugee protection by establishing a set of (non-binding) commitments for joint action.

At the same time, on the European level, strong efforts are being undertaken to reform the Common European Asylum System and to re-establish what solidarity and responsibility sharing will mean in political terms. In the long-run, the key challenge will be to organise a functioning asylum system and to maintain the internal free movement system. Several stumbling blocks need to be overcome: the territorial principle of refugee protection and a general deterrence policy ultimately create undesired consequences of irregular immigration and increase the risks that asylum seekers will take to reach European territory. Lacking legal immigration opportunities, moreover, will contribute to continued irregular immigration. Return policies that give a 50-50 chance of remaining will further add to this equation. Outdated and ineffective border management arrangements will further undermine these efforts. Of course, migration cannot be understood from a purely economic perspective. Migration has social, cultural and political aspects as well, and these aspects will be part of the equation. The rapid changes of today create opportunities but they also create a high degree of uncertainty and fear in societies. Parts of the public have lost their trust and confidence in the ability of governments to regulate and control migration. It is of overriding importance to regain this trust and not continue to exploit the image of a crisis long after it is over.

Migration is further strongly susceptible to external shocks related to political unrest and violent conflict, factors that by their very nature are close to impossible to predict accurately. Demographic developments and the pertaining economic inequalities between Europe and the main sending regions in Africa and Asia will likely result in continued migration from these regions to Europe in the decades to come.

Demographic developments in Europe and in the main migrant sending regions paint the following picture: a sustained need for immigration to compensate for an ageing population in Europe and growing migration pressure due to the youth bulge in the MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa. However, a variety of intervening factors have to be taken into account in order to estimate the size and direction of future migration flows. Neither demographic imbalances nor economic inequalities between world regions directly translate into migration, although both are major drivers for migration. Several other factors, like e.g. the existence of migration networks, policy–driven restrictions and incentives for migration, social and political conflicts, changing employment possibilities in other target areas, or the cultural climate vis-à-vis migration play a role in translating migration intentions into concrete migration decisions. It is thus not possible to estimate precisely the size and direction of future migration flows to Europe. Still, all key indicators point to a moderate to significant growth of migration from these regions to Europe in the next decades. Likely technological advances with potentially disruptive effects on labour markets, and thus on the demand and offer of labour, on the one hand, and game-changing developments in the context of block-chain technology, on the other, will influence future migration in yet unforeseen ways. While the EU saw a significant reduction in the number of asylum seeker arrivals in 2017, the overall migration pressure did not recede. In fact, based on projected demographic developments in Europe and neighbouring regions, the number of armed conflicts, environmental degradation and growing global economic inequality (as well as a host of other factors), migration to Europe will continue to increase. Therefore, global migration governance frameworks provided by the Sustainable Development Goals and by the Global Compacts are of particular importance on the regional levels, particularly in Europe. And while the negotiations of the final text of the Global Compacts are still underway these agreements could if understood in the right way provide structures and policy guidance supportive of better regulating global migration and refugee protection. On the regional level, moreover, Europe has to continue to invest in long-term partnerships with the countries of transit and origin. These partnerships need to address the mutual interest of the partners and be designed so as to provide the basis for real cooperation in all areas of migration. These partnerships cannot be built over night; they will experience set-backs and will be vulnerable to populism. We need to understand, however, that there are no simple answers to these complex challenges, there are no short-term remedies and magic formulas. Continued crisis management will only perpetuate the crisis. The next 25 year need to be used to overcome the crisis management mode and establish a multi-layered governance system that is up to the task of making migration better, to make it more safe, orderly and regular. Only then will migration become a matter of choice rather than of necessity. 


This article has been first published in ICMPD's Annual Report (2017), released in May 2018.