Migrations have been for decades one of the central themes of politics in the West. In recent years, not only has the anti-immigration discourse become one of the great polarizers in the public sphere, but the “refugee crisis” has had an enormous impact on the European Union.
In Spain, we know all this well. We have gone from having a “problem” with emigration during the late 19th, early 20th, and post-war years to having a “problem” with immigration in the late 20th and early 21st century. So much so that a good part of our foreign policy is explained in “controlling migratory flows.” But What if this was something about to end? And yes as some defend Are we living in the last era of the great migrations?
Although it is often said that human beings have been migrating since their origins at the beginning of time, the truth is that when today we speak of “migration” we are talking about something very specific that only has “a family resemblance” with the traditional migrations.
It happens with many other terms: prehistorians and contemporary historians use terms like “state” or “class” to refer to similar things, yes; but totally different. In this way, contemporary migrations are an eminently “modern” phenomenon. Something that arises during the eighteenth century (and that includes, although we do not usually fall back on it, transatlantic slavery) and that develops hand in hand with the industrial revolution and its modulations.
Before the eighteenth century, there were population movements, wars and conquests, of course; but the truth is that the traditional demographic regime left few population surpluses enough for those “migrations” to be similar to the current ones.
Precisely what happens in the eighteenth century is that in certain countries mortality rates suddenly collapse thanks to improvements in agricultural productivity, incipient industrialization, health advances and literacy. This causes an increase in the rearranged population according to the productive structure through a series of migrations: first, internal (towards the industrial zones of the country) and, later, at an international level thanks to colonialism and the first steps of globalization.
An empty world: soon there will be no people to migrate
But, if we look, the demographic transition is a phenomenon with an expiration date. Today there is no country in the world with a traditional demographic regime. If there are some (Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria or the Republic of Congo) that maintain very high birth rates, but mortality has already fallen.
How long will it take to walk the path that countries like Guatemala, Algeria or Chile have already traveled (which are already seeing how their birth rate is reduced)? Or, even more so, how long will it take to balance the birth rate with the mortality rate and end the demographic transition?
Less than we think. If we listen to the projections, within a few decades the population collapse of Africa and Asia will ease population pressure and, with it, the current need for thousands of people to migrate to richer countries. Makes sense. The African continent, to go to the clearest example, is urbanizing almost twice as fast as the world and the world population is becoming urban at a forced march. In 2007, half of humanity already saw are above the replacement rate.
Let’s be direct: poor countries are stopping having children at record speed. We are before a fertile revolution with very few precedents on a historical level. Only very specific groups with very marked ideological characteristics, such as the Amish, the Orthodox Jews or the Mormons, have been able to “escape” this curse of low birth rates.
And I put “escape” in quotes because, in fact, the Mormons also seem to be suffering from signs of population decline. They are still big families, yes; but not as much as they used to be. In addition, if these community strategies were indeed capable of “solving” the demographic problem, we have more than enough empirical evidence that it is very difficult to make state policies in this regard.
“The world population will never reach nine billion people. It will reach a maximum of 8 billion in 2040, and then it will decrease”, explained in The Guardian Jørgen Randers, a Norwegian demographer known for his work on overpopulation. It is not an isolated opinion, there are more and more experts who point out that the overpopulation alarms were still wrong.
And without overpopulation there will be no great migrations. At least in the medium term. Because, actually, there is a force that could create large population movements without population growth: climate change. And it is that, although today we have decoupled ourselves quite a bit from nature, we are tied to it. We have always been.
Image | Bernat Armangue/AP