Published on People Move

The malaise of demographic dynamics in ECA: Is Migration a saving grace?

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In the Europe and Central Asia (ECA), populations and labor forces are shrinking because of below-replacement-level fertility, aging populations and high dependency ratios, high mortality in much of the region, shrinking youth populations and therefore fewer new entrants into the labor force, and populations with limited mobility. Fertility rates in many ECA countries are at all time “lowest-low” levels, where the number of births per woman is less than 1.3. Several ECA countries are among those with the oldest median ages in the world.

Populations in many ECA countries are either currently declining or soon will be. Over the past two decades, the global population increased by 30 percent—less-developed countries by 36 percent and more-developed by just 8 percent. Yet the ECA region as a whole lost 1.4 percent of its people.

Because younger people of working age are most mobile, countries where emigration rates are high are losing persons who are of prime reproductive age, and destination countries gain disproportionate numbers of younger, more fertile, people.

The steep declines in fertility has been attributed to the transition-induced economic declines across the region, less social support for childbearing and -rearing, and increased returns on education causing many women to defer having children. The pattern of ECA fertility now resembles that of Western Europe.

Migration and Aging: In the ECA over the past two decades, Russia has had the largest absolute population increase from migration, about 5 percent. Meanwhile, Albania, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan have seen 15 percent or more of their people leave.

The Role of Migration: It has been suggested that replacement migration might compensate for declining and aging populations. However, according to UN Population Division simulations1,  the amount of immigration necessary to “solve” the aging problem would be massive.

Policy Options: The extreme population declines and aging in the ECA region are unparalleled in human history. Among critical issues ECA countries need to reassess are appropriate ages for retirement; levels, types, and nature of retirement and elderly health-care benefits; labor force participation; amounts from workers and employers needed to support retirement and health-care benefits for burgeoning larger elderly populations; and policies and programs related to international migration and how to integrate the large numbers of recent migrants and their descendants.

No single policy intervention will necessarily slow fertility declines. What works in one country may not work in another. And because population policies take effect slowly, they are politically less attractive. But all options must be looked at squarely.

This blog is based on a forthcoming MiRPAL knowledge brief based on a comprehensive data collection exercise.

1United Nations Population Division, 2001, Replacement Migration: Is it a Solution to Declining and Aging Populations? New York, NY: United Nations. At that time, the EU consisted of the EU 15 and Europe encompassed 47 countries.


Sudharshan Canagarajah

Practice Manager, Strategy and Knowledge, Climate Change Group, World Bank

Timothy Heleniak

Director, American Geographical Society

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