Colliding Forces

Financial Times | October 18, 2011

By James Crabtree

The 4,500 residents of the sleepy Italian island of Lampedusa are a community under siege. Lying only 180 miles north-west of Libya, they have found themselves at the epicentre of an international crisis as Italy struggles to cope with more than 52,000 migrants who have arrived from north Africa this year, sparking a political outcry that has rever-berated across Europe.

Lampedusa is just one in a string of migration-related trouble spots. Some follow sudden political upheavals; others flow from more predictable movements, as with tensions on the US-Mexican border, or difficulties faced by Julia Gillard, Australian prime minister, following the collapse of her plans to process asylum seekers in Malaysia, rather than Australia.

Yet it this problem is causing a large amount of angst today, many believe it is only going to get worse. “Migration is the public face of globalisation”, says Parag Khanna, an expert on globalisation at the New America Foundation, a think-thank. “It has long been a sensitive national political issue, but it is now going to become a geopolitical and security issue too.”

Concerns about migration stem largely from the fact that the number of global migrants is rising – and fast. At first glance, the numbers do not look particularly troubling. Only about 3 per cent of the world’s population – about 190m – live outside the country of their birth. Indeed, the financial crisis actually led to that number falling slightly, as poor growth led some migrants to head home.

The academic consensus, however, is that this was merely a blip. Economist Ian Goldin, author of Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future, predicts that global people flows will grow “very substantially in the future”, roughly doubling by 2050.

Goldin is cautious about drawing alarmist conclusions: in the future most migrants will, he says, move legally, from rich countries to other rich countries, as they do today. Nonetheless, he admits there will be some unavoidable pressures. “The crunch points are going to be those places that are geographically proximate to the large advanced economies like Lampedusa, or Malta and Greece,” he says. “It is vital that these places do not have to bear alone the burden of the accident of their geography.”

Higher migrant flows will partly be a matter of choice. Fast-ageing advanced economies face a looming labour shortfall, potentially of as many as 100m workers by 2050, much of which will probably be met by increased immigration. But alongside these “pull” factors lie others pushing migrants out from developing nations, especially as economic and population growth in Africa, south Asia and South America results in a “bulge” of young people able and willing to move abroad.

Approximately 10 per cent of Mexico’s population live over the border in the US. But with its fertility falling and labour supply shrinking, Mexico is set to produce fewer migrants in the future, while demographics and economic growth in the developing nations of Central and South America will produce many more – potentially putting more pressure on Mexico’s southern border, rather than just that of the US.

Africa faces particular challenges. The UN predicts that by 2050 the continent’s population will have doubled to 1.8bn, the majority of whom will struggle to find economic opportunities at home. Jack Goldstone, director of the Center for Global Policy at George Mason University in the US, argued in a paper last year that the increasing number of young people flowing from Africa and the Islamic world should be seen as a new security “megatrend”.

“Strategists worldwide must consider that the world’s young are becoming concentrated in those countries [that are] least prepared to educate and employ them,” Prof Goldstone wrote.

The “dry zone” of sub-Saharan Africa faces another problem, this time from the threat of climate change. The most damaging consequences of global warming are often thought to flow from rising sea levels, or catastrophic weather events. The most significant causes of long-term instability, however, are likely to follow population movements. Some will happen in response to disasters such as droughts, or floods. But others will come more gradually, as agricultural patterns, crop yields and water supplies change. A 2007 projection cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted more than 200m “environmental refugees” by mid-century.

One further trend will be driven by the most important factor underpinning globalisation: the growth of Asia and, in particular, China. The country’s bulging borders are increasingly a concern, most notably the eastern portion of its border with Russia. To the south are two Chinese provinces with a population of about 200m; to the north, a vast expanse of Siberian wilderness with barely 10m inhabitants. Movements of Chinese labour, attracted by industries such as forestry, are already exacerbating broader Russian fears about its more populous southern neighbour.

Tensions around the Chinese periphery, according to Khanna of the New America Foundation, are an underexplored topic in security circles. He says that not one of the 14 countries bordering China is free from demographic angst of some sort.

A final trend is movement of people from rural to urban areas. Research suggests that 500m farmers will move to cities over the next 50 years, creating pressure on already teeming metropolises such as Mumbai, Delhi, Dhaka and Shanghai – each of which is expected to be home to more than 20m people by 2025. Goldin thinks this trend is particularly problematic in Africa, the only region in which “urbanisation is taking place in the absence of industrialisation” and where such cities as Kinshasa, Cairo and Lagos are projected to top 15m inhabitants over the same period.

Overcrowding creates security threats, from international terrorism and criminal gangs, to money laundering and people trafficking. Khanna thinks that even more dramatic threats may bubble up as these cities grow. “Cities like Kinshasa and Karachi will become ever more combustible and unstable places, where it is certainly plausible to imagine the need for western military engagement in future,” he says. “These are places in which a future marked by forms of urban guerrilla warfare is quite real.”

Such stark warnings should, of course, be balanced against the benefits migration can bring. Most experts agree that the movement of people is broadly beneficial, both to recipient countries and to migrants.

Goldin is clear, however, that the problems of a world with more open borders are being inadequately addressed. “Migratory flows are the orphan of the international system”, he says. Without new rules and institutions to manage and monitor them, the concerns will only worsen as the pace of globalisation increases. If they do, the residents of Lampedusa will not be the last to feel the consequences.

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