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World: UN Official Says Migration A Hot Policy Issue For 21st Century

  • Don Hill

The number of migrants in the world has more than doubled since 1975. Now almost one of every 10 people living in developed countries is a migrant. The United Nations Population Division recently made public its first-ever study of world migration. It says that migration is a vital international issue of the times. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill interviews Population Division Director Joseph Chamie.

Prague, 24 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations Population Division says that about 175 million people -- roughly 3 percent of the world's population -- live in countries other than where they were born. In its first-ever study report on international migration, just published, the agency says the number of migrants has more than doubled since 1975.

Joseph Chamie, director of the Population Division, says the phenomenon of migration has developed as a vital policy concern of the times.

"And this is one of the important issues of the 21st century," Chamie said. "In the 20th century we had very rapid population growth. Population growth is continuing in the world but it's about half the growth rate that we had at its peak level of about 2 percent. Today it's close to about 1.2 percent."

In a telephone interview, Chamie tells RFE/RL that the movement of people to developed countries is bolstering those countries' declining populations and labor forces and possibly improving the hope of social security for their retirees as well. For developing countries, migration is also seen as a solution to overcrowding and a way to provide significant flows of income from working family members abroad.

Migration, he says, is simply part of the human condition: "A characteristic of humanity is that they move around. Seeking opportunities. Seeking greener pastures. Seeking warmer climates. This will continue throughout the 21st century."

Chamie says there are many causes for the current high numbers of migrants. About one in 11 are refugees. Others are seeking economic opportunity. And others, he says, simply have been reclassified by developments in world geopolitics.

"For example, in the Russian Federation -- which was not in existence 20 years ago -- today we have about 13 million foreign-born," he said. "And they came back to the Russian Federation territory from the provinces of the Soviet Union. At the time they were internal migrants but today they're, of course, foreign-born."

The UN report says that a related mechanism has placed Estonia, Latvia, and Kazakhstan among the 15 nations in the world with the highest proportion of migrants in their populations. Russians who moved to those countries as Soviet citizens and have remained now are classified as migrants. The report says that the breakup of the Soviet Union has added 27 million people to the world's total migrant stock.

Chamie says that modern migration trends also respond to supply and demand: "And you have a number of factors that are operating here. One of course is the demographic picture. You have Europe basically aging and declining. And the labor force demands their increase, because they have relatively low birth rates. So you have a demand there for skilled and unskilled workers."

Chamie continues: "On the other side of the demographic coin you have many countries that are growing very rapidly -- especially in south Asia and Africa -- and they have a large supply of people who are looking for employment and better opportunities. Even if they have jobs in their own countries, they can get better salaries and better opportunities in many of the developed countries of Europe and North America/Australia. So many of them are deciding to migrate."

Globalization is having an impact too. The days may be long past when the African villager who owned two goats felt rich because his neighbor had one or none.

"And you have many people now who are seeing the lifestyles in the developed countries, in movies and on television and newspapers and magazines, and are deciding to leave," Chamie said. "At the same time, you have people who are suffering either because of natural disasters, drought, agricultural problems, civil unrest in their countries, and other reasons that are exacerbating their lifestyles. And many of these people have decided to leave those circumstances and go to developed countries in the north."

The UN report says that money sent home to poorer countries by foreign workers have become a significant force in world economics. It says that in 2000, remittances from abroad were more than 10 percent of the gross domestic product for Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example.

Chamie also says that many developed economies -- Italy, France, and Germany among them -- face a growing danger of outgrowing their ability to support elderly people who live past their working years. He says as birth rates drop and people live longer, the ratio of working people to elderly people is declining from 20th century norms of four or five to one. He says projections show that typical ratios of two or less to one are likely to become common.

"What we have going on in the world today due to declining fertility is we're having a change in the age structure," Chamie said. "In addition, the people in the retirement ages are living longer. So you're having a decrease because of the fewer births in the working-age population relative to the retirees."

Chamie says increasing the expected age for retirement would be one tool -- although an unpopular one -- for ameliorating the problem.

Chamie continued: "And many who have looked at this fear what I have called the coming of a red-ink society, where the deficits will be ballooning and there will have to be reassessments of how countries could deal with this. One thing that could be done -- and I think this is very likely to be occurring -- is increasing the age of retirement."

In some cases, he says, this solution is totally unworkable.

"If China or Korea or [such] countries wanted to [set] the age of retirement high enough so that the [worker-to-elderly] ratio remains the same as it is today, it would be higher than the average life expectancy at birth," he said.

Another tool, he says, would be the welcoming of foreign workers -- migrants -- to bolster the population and reduce its average age. This would require amending current policies in many countries of severely restricting immigration.

(The UN "International Migration Report 2002" can be found on the Internet at "" Also at this site is a country-by-country report on "International Migration from Countries with Economies in Transition 1980-1999.")