Tougher borders won’t stop Britain from being overwhelmed by illegal migration

Last weekend, at his meeting with the Italian prime minister Georgia Meloni, Rishi Sunak claimed migrants were threatening to “overwhelm” countries like the UK unless drastic action is taken. 

Sunak’s Italian counterpart is currently considering a similar scheme to the now highly controversial plan to send refugees to Rwanda. But the PM’s comments sparked a fresh wave of outrage.

There can be reasonable differences of opinion about whether the current levels of migration can be absorbed into the developed countries of Western Europe without significant disruption.

But if we peer into the future, the current numbers will seem a mere trickle compared to the potential tsunami which could lie in store. To see this, we can combine projections of population with the current levels of income per head in different regions of the world.

The current population of the world is around 8.2bn. On its central projection, the United Nations estimates that by 2050 it will be 9.7bn. After a further small increase, we’ll hit the peak in the second half of the century.

Within Europe, however, the population is projected to fall from 740m to 700m. Why? Europe is rich. GDP per capital is $37,000 across the continent as a whole, compared to $12,600 for the world as a whole, according to the World Bank.

As incomes rise, women are more likely to have fewer children. In the last century, birth rates have fallen dramatically, and population only continued to grow because of similar reductions in mortality rates. Births are now so low that the population will soon fall despite very low death rates.

As incomes have risen, the global average annual population growth rate has fallen from some 2.3 per cent in 1960 to 0.8 per cent now.

But in Africa, the population will continue to soar. Of the 1.5bn global population increase by 2050, 1bn of these will be in Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, income per head is $1,700. That is to say within a single generation there will be an extra 1bn people in Africa.

While there is already a lot of existing migration within Africa – especially, for example to South Africa, where income per capita is four times that of many other counties – the attractions of Europe are obvious.
Plus, the desire to move from rural areas to cities has existed since cities first appeared several millennia ago. Conditions for most newcomers have often been brutal, living in poverty and squalor. But in the city, there is hope for a better life, if not for you then for your children. In rural poverty, there is none.

Of course, not everyone migrates. As Nobel Laureates Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo have pointed out, there is “stickiness” in labour movement: once there is a reasonable standard of living, the desire to migrate, even to much richer areas, falls sharply. For example, very few of those trying to cross into the US are Mexican; instead they are from much poorer areas of South America.

But the potential numbers of migrants from Africa are vast. Yes, we can defend Europe’s borders more stringently. But the only real solution is a massive programme to promote the economic development of Africa, to help create this “stickiness”.

Western Europe was revived after the Second World War by the American Marshall Plan. A similar vision on an even bigger scale is needed for Africa.

Otherwise Rishi Sunak is right: Europe does indeed run the risk of being overwhelmed.

As published in City AM Wednesday 20th December 2023
Image: Wikimedia
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