Demographic Dangers & Declining Birth Rates, Part Two: Refugees & Immigration.

Immigration is the potential solution to many demographic problems. So why are people so fearful & are they right to be so, or are we all falling victim to hard-right, disinformation narratives?

Peter Winn-Brown
11 min readApr 12, 2023
A dinghy with 54 Afghan refugees arrives on the beach in Lesbos, Greece.
A dinghy with 54 Afghan refugees arrives in Lesbos, Greece. Aris Messinis/Agence France-Presse, From the NYT.

“If we still think of the totalitarian governments that ruled Europe before the Second World War we can easily say that it would be difficult for them to reappear in the same form in different historical circumstances. If Mussolini’s fascism was based upon the idea of a charismatic ruler, on corporatism, on the utopia of the Imperial Fate of Rome, on an imperialistic will to conquer new territories, on an exacerbated nationalism, on the ideal of an entire nation regimented in black shirts, on the rejection of parliamentary democracy, on anti-Semitism, then I have no difficulty in acknowledging that today the Italian Alleanza Nazionale, born from the postwar Fascist Party, MSI, and certainly a right-wing party, has by now very little to do with the old fascism. In the same vein, even though I am much concerned about the various Nazi-like movements that have arisen here and there in Europe, including Russia, (even though) I do not think that Nazism, in its original form, is about to reappear as a nationwide movement.”

Umberto Eco, Visionary and Seer! Ur-fascism, 1995.

Demographic decline: political consequences & social upheaval…

Globally the birth rate has dropped dramatically from a recorded peak of 5.3 births per woman in 1963 to 2.3 in 2020. This is just above the population replacement rate of 2.2 births per woman (although this figure can vary by nation). Should it drop below the replacement rate, which given the current trend, may happen within the next few years, then once today’s children have passed, we could reasonably expect the global population will start to drop.

But for now the problems of over population in some areas, and falling populations in others can present a whole raft of security, social and political problems, none of which we are sadly currently equipped to deal with.

Since 1960 the percentage of males surviving to age 65 or beyond has risen from 42 to 72%, and females from 51 to 81% changing the overall global demographic; this so-called ‘global graying’ is becoming the dominant trend in 21st Century demographics with the world expected to add another billion over 65’s during the next couple of decades to add to the 750,000 there are now.

Amazingly global longevity has pushed life expectancy from 34 years in 1913 to 72 by 2022 meaning aging is for now, at least, the most pervasive and worrying global demographic trend.

And whilst a rapidly aging population presents its own problems, it is declining fertility, that has dropped in every single nation, and falling birth rates that are of more immediate concern in many countries, such as in those of concern here for the purposes of this post; China, Russia and the U.S..

A nation with low fertility experiences demographic change at both ends of the population spectrum, but in particular a reducing population among the young can create a momentum slide in total population numbers that must be ended if a population is to remain demographically sustainable.

But more than that, with ever greater numbers of older citizens, and ever smaller numbers of working young, a nations GDP can expect to diminish concurrent with a shrinking working population (see Table 1. below for a global outlook).

Table 1. How a declining population & ever smaller numbers of global workers may adversely affect global GDP growth
Table 1. This table highlights how a declining population & ever smaller numbers of global workers may adversely affect global GDP growth (1).

Table 1. above shows that overall population growth will decline by 0.5%, but the drop in workers is 0.9%, and the drop in global GDP by 2060 is expected to be far greater than might be predicted by the decline in population growth (1).

There is of course, great disparity in these figures across different nations, and can in some — as in France at this very moment — present governments with a growing political conundrum as, over time, diminishing numbers of workers would be expected to pay ever higher taxes to maintain the status quo, for an ever expanding elderly population.

One obvious solution to help alleviate the problem is to raise retirement ages accordingly; a solution that is supported by the logic of mathematics but can, as President Macron is finding out, present a huge political obstacle where the application of logic is tantamount to a loss of power for a government.

Logic it would appear has very little to do with the politics of retirement, in France, at least!

But the reasons for declining fertility vary across global regions, and even between localised regions (e.g. between cities and urban areas), but as a rule in much of North America, Western Europe and East Asia it is becoming prohibitively costly for parents, and particularly for women to have children, whereas in Eastern Europe and many under-developed countries it is financial hardship and a families aspirations for themselves that increase the relative cost of having a large(r) family.

What’s more, the competitive marketplace and capitalist drive at the heart of the global economy promotes investment in self, and not in others, and that includes in a child. A new vehicle or house is often times deemed to be preferable, even desirable to having another child.

It boils down to human agency once again, just as it does in Russia and China, as discussed in Part One of this series. Many potential parents put their own lifestyle and wants ahead of starting or having a larger family, and why not, if that is what they wish?

The world teaches us to be selfish and put ourselves before others, and that translates into declining birth rates, and at the same time opens up a political can of worms that right-wing politicians, broadcasters and populists exploit to promote not only a return to the ‘traditional family,’ but can also employ as a means to vilify and victimise migrants and refugees, who, may sully or despoil the culture and social fabric of an established nation, but who also, rather ironically, offer the potential to sustain or even grow a nations population should they be made welcome.

This would require well thought out integration policies, as well as other initiatives that make their culture welcome as an integral part of their new home. If such could be achieved so that, in my part of the world, some thing we might call our ‘Englishness,’ is retained but with the added colour of a further culture influence that should only widen our cultural base whilst retaining that with which we readily identify.

Whilst the numbers of refugees asking for asylum in the EU had levelled off since a peak in 2015/16, that number has unsurprisingly risen again in the wake of Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine, with applications hitting 84,500 in August 2022, the highest since 2015 (2).

This huge influx — the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) reporting that by November 2022 4.7 million had registered for some level of protection, and by April 4th this year had risen to just over 5 million, with a huge 8,163,000 refugees in total having fled the conflict zone — has inevitably led to social, political and financial strain on the resources of the EU, but it is the numbers of illegal or irregular border crossings by migrants that seem stir the most virulent political reactions, and oftentimes have the most tragic consequences for the migrants themselves.

In 2022 alone saw an average of 5 people per day die trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe (2) with more than 25,000 having died over the last decade, some 50 of those having died trying to cross the English Channel since 2019.

After a relative decrease in illegal border crossings since 2016, January to October 2022 saw a 77% increase on the same period in 2021 (Figure 1. below), with the Western Balkan and central Mediterranean routes being the most commonly used (2).

Applications for international protection in the EU+ area between 2014 and 2022 with a massive high in 2015
Figure 1. Applications for international protection in the EU+ area (in millions). From the European Parliamentary Research Service (2).

Whilst the EU is attempting to reform its asylum and migration policies, including a possible revision of the Schengen area that may reinstate some internal border controls, progress has been slow and erratic with difficulties in establishing a consensus on many issues (2). However, the aim is to have completed this process by the end of the current legislative period in 2024, but watch this space!

But in the meantime many refugees are finding Europe and the U.S. to be less than welcoming at their borders, often finding violence and brutal treatment at the hands of border guards and patrols rather than the protection and solace they seek, and often deserve.

Between March 2020 and May 2022 more than 2 million people were illegally turned away from the Southern U.S. borders under a brutal Trump era border policy called Title 42, an existing border-control measure that Trump twisted to ‘help’ combat the coronavirus, a disease ironically many Republicans, including Trump, didn’t believe in.

The policy which denied people the right to seek asylum, something explicitly enshrined in both U.S. and international law, was eventually lifted by Biden after a Federal judge overturned an earlier verdict taken in May 2022.

The restrictions were finally lifted on December 21st last year, ending a policy the judge calledarbitrary and capricious,” and one that had “perpetuated the cruel legacy of the Trump administration and made border enforcement much more difficult and chaotic.

Even if much of the Trump era border strife is now over, Biden’s policies are still tough, and perhaps especially so for any Muslim migrants who may have travelled from as far a field as Afghanistan, Syria or parts of Africa.

Even if asylum is granted or a supposed safe haven is reached, the trials and dangers are not necessarily over.

Ukrainian families flee Putin’s invasion becoming Europe’s latest wave of refugees.
Ukrainian refugees fleeing Putin’s illegal invasion; the latest wave of immigration to wash over Europe.

“…once the Kremlin finally confronts the true depths of the country’s ugly demographic truths, Russia’s political leaders could very well become more alarmist, mercurial, and confrontational in their international posture. And in the process, Moscow might become more prone to miscalculation when it comes to relations with both allies and rivals.”

Nicholas Eberstadt, Foreign Affairs, 2011.

White extinction anxiety…

The blunt truth of the matter is that even as the rate of global population growth slows, our total numbers will continue to rise for the rest of this century, possibly reaching an elbow crunching 9 million by the turn of the next century. And more than anything right now, that rise is not a good thing for the planet.

Jennifer Scuibba explains that in some regions “…population pressures are blowing the top off of a pot already boiling with poor governance, civil war and environmental destruction. At best, there’s only dim hope for a peaceful future. When the pot boils over, countries across the globe (will) feel the effects in the form of refugees and terrorist extremism.”

The analogy of a ‘pot boiling over’ to describe people fleeing hunger, climate disaster, war and overwhelming poverty is one loaded with the negative weight of expectation that the media, politicians and policy makers have laced with fear all across the relatively rich Northern Hemisphere of late, these fears having their root largely in the waves of refugees that have spilled out of the Middle East in the last decade or so.

And this fear continues to fuel right-wing ethno-nationalists in particular who take advantage of the resultant chaos to stir the political stew, using scare tactics in nations as diverse as France, Britain, Sweden, Germany, Hungary, the U.S. and more to further their arguments for cultural or even racial purity; highly provocative, and oftentimes flagrantly false arguments that have in large part already fuelled one global conflict; and I would suggest that the planet can ill afford another.

But whilst migration holds the key to survival for the vast majority of nations, it is the nature and degree of the migration that remains key to many arguments. It would not be a false statement to say that there is a viable limit to the number of migrants that a small nation, such as Great Britain for example, can take in. One might argue as to what that number might be, but it doesn’t change the fact that there is a limit nevertheless.

And it is also true to say, for instance, that high rates of immigration and migration are driving ethnic change in some countries in what Professor of Demography David Coleman is calling ‘a third demographic transition (3).’

Coleman confirms the worst fears of some by explaining that low fertility and high immigration can be significant drivers of demographic change because they can alter “…the composition of national populations and thereby the culture, physical appearance, social experiences and self-perceived identity of the inhabitants (3),” and in so doing agitate the racial pot bringing fringe ideas, such as the replacement theory, into the mainstream, stoking fears of ethno-cultural extinction at the hands of people who are ‘different’ from the rest of us — the majority, if you will — leading to what Charles Blow has calledwhite extinction anxiety.”

British demographer, Paul Morland wrote with sober reflection that “…in (Africa) as a whole in 1950 there were far less than half as many people as there were in Europe. Today, Africa’s population is around a third larger than Europe’s, and by 2100 it is likely to have quadrupled again, while Europe’s will have shrunk.

The simple fact is that the world is set to become a whole lot more African over the next century, bringing with it the potential for a tidal wave of immigration from the South into Europe and beyond, with numbers that could shove white anxiety from a low stress factoid into a veritable frenzy of reality.

And Russia, in particular, is a past master at exploiting these fears in ongoing attempts to undermine support and sympathy for refugees, to stir social discomfort and raise anti-migrant/refugee sentiment, in a blatant bid to destabilise governments, weaken policy arguments and, in the case of the EU, to drive a racial wedge into the European architecture in the hope of creating political and social instability and foment division wherever it can be found.

In my next post I’ll continue this serial examination by looking at the ways anti-immigrant hate speech and disinformation, much of it originating in Russia, is changing the political narrative as hard right-wing sentiments goes transnational and permeates into the fabric of nations all across Europe, the U.S. as well as in some surprisingly unexpected places.

Thanks for reading!

  1. The Demographic Transition and SDGs Around the World; from a lecture Sept 12–13, 2019; Ronald Lee, Professor of the Graduate School, Demography and Economics, University of California at Berkeley.
  2. EU Pact on Migration & Asylum: State of play; Costica Dumbrava, Katrien Luyten and Anita Orav, Published by the European Parliamentary Research Service, December 2022.
  3. Immigration and Ethnic Change in Low-Fertility Countries: A Third Demographic Transition; David Coleman, Population and Development Review, Vol. 32, no.3 (Sep., 2006), pp. 401–446.
Depiction of Ukrainian flag with the words ‘solidarity with the people of Ukraine against Russian aggression’ across it.
#solidaritywithUkraine

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Peter Winn-Brown

The past can illuminate the present if we shine the light of inquiry openly, truthfully, with attention to detail & care for the salient facts.