Published on People Move

Will International Migration Continue Forever?

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This seems a curious question. Most people would say: yes, of course. But this is an extrapolation of today’s situation which might not remain the same in the decades to come. In any case, the response to our question has major implications for population dynamics in many developing and industrialized countries alike. 

The connection between migration and demographic trends was the subject of a Joint KNOMAD-UN Population Division Seminar held in New York on April 29, 2014 (all materials and presentations are available online here). The outcome of the seminar was subsequently discussed at a KNOMAD Seminar at World Bank headquarters (a PowerPoint presentation with the same title is available here). 

What do we know today? Divergence in both population dynamics and economic growth is set to continue for the foreseeable future, but how this will impact migrant flows is highly uncertain. Demographic aging and shrinking working age populations in the global North would suggest more migration flows from youthful societies of the global South. But at the same time GDP growth is projected to be considerably higher in emerging markets and lower income economies than in the developed part of the world. This would imply less emigration from the global South. The core of our question therefore is: Will people move from youthful places with population growth to countries where population is in decline and GDP might stagnate (even if at a higher level)?  Or, will people prefer to live in the more dynamic economies despite the fact that GDP per capita is lower than in the Western world? 

Given all of the uncertainties surrounding long-term trends, population forecasts out to 2050 and 2100 typically do not include migration projections that are empirically grounded and detailed at the country level.  Long-term population forecasts generally assume future reductions of net migration flows.  While the overall impact of migration on demography is relatively small in larger countries with high fertility, it plays a huge role in smaller countries and in countries with low fertility.  No doubt, people will continue to move.  But how many, whereto, for how long, and driven by what economic and other motivations, is an open debate, to which demography and migration research can contribute meaningfully.

Demographic trends vary substantially around the world, driven firstly by differences in fertility, but in places like the European Union, the US, Russia and the Gulf States, also by immigration.  Since 1950, the number of children per woman has fallen by about 50% to an average of about 2.5 today. In Europe, Russia and China, the average number of children per woman is well below 2, which translates into a shrinking number of youngsters, young adults and native work forces. At the same time, total fertility remains high in Sub-Saharan Africa, and continues exceeding the global average in most parts of the Middle East, Western Asia and parts of South and South-East Asia.  


Christian Eigen-Zucchi

Senior Economist, Development Prospects Group, World Bank

Rainer Münz

Head of Research, Erste Bank, and Chair of KNOMAD Thematic Working Group 8

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