Immigration As a Remedy for Population Decline? An Overview of the European Countries

3. The Role of Immigration in Slowing Down the Ageing Process

As I showed with the two figures in the last sections, Europe is rapidly ageing: there are no countries with a Total Fertility Rate higher or equal to the replacement level. Since all the projections show no turning back in the level of fertility, considerable attention has been given to the so called replacement migration, a term which refers to “[…] the international migration that would be needed to offset possible population shortages, i.e. declines in the size of population, the declines in the population of working age, as well as to offset the overall ageing of a population” (United Nations 2000, p. 5).
The attempts to estimate the exact amount of immigrants required to let the European countries maintain their current level of population, age indexes and activity or employment rate, have been manifold, but most of them led to the conclusion that immigration flows should rise to huge, unsustainable levels. In the next pages I shall briefly examine the already cited UN Report of 2000 and one of the latest of these studies (Feld, 2006). Since the UN Report was strongly criticised, I shall of course examine a few of these critiques, which allowed me to conclude that, even if it can have a certain role, immigration alone is not sufficient to reverse or just to slow down the ageing process.

3.1 Replacement Migration According to the UN Report

Since the European populations started to decline, there have been many studies about the role that immigration can play to reverse or just slow this process. Some researchers showed that population size could only be maintained by the possible replacement of the original population by the immigrant one (Steinmann and Jaeger, 2000; Coleman, 2000; Shaw, 2001). However, some previous work (among the others Lestheaghe, Page and Surkyn, 1988; Wattelaar and Roumans, 1996; van Imhoff and Keilman, 1996) had already shown that only extensive and increasing levels of immigration could preserve the age structures and the potential support ratios of developed populations, necessitating the population to grow to an exceptional size, almost without limit (Coleman and Rowthorn, 2004, p. 594).
Although the debate about the role of immigration had already started many years ago, with the publishing of the United Nations Report of 2000, it reignited. The figures showed by the Report (some of which will be provided later) divided the researchers into two groups: those who agreed with the results of the report, stating that immigration will have to rise at unprecedented levels, and those who maintained that the estimates proposed by the UN where absolutely unrealistic.
The UN Report was built on a medium variant of the 1998 Revision of the United Nations World Population Prospects (United Nations 1999a, 1999b, 1999c), and showed six different scenarios, which can be summarized as follows (UN, 2000, p. 15):
1. Scenario I: based on the simple medium variant of the 1998 Revision.
2. Scenario II: based on the medium variant of the 1998 Revision, amended by assuming zero migration after 1995.
3. Scenario III: computes and assumes the migration required to maintain the size of the total population at the highest level it would reach in the absence of migration after 1995.
4. Scenario IV: computes and assumes the migration required to maintain the size of the working-age population (15 to 64 years) at the highest level it would reach in the absence of migration after 1995.
5. Scenario V: computes and assumes the migration required to prevent the ratio of the size of the population aged 15-64 to the size of the population aged 65 or over, called the potential support ratio (PSR), from declining below the value of 3.0.
6. Scenario VI: computes and assumes the migration required to maintain the potential support ratio (PSR) at the highest level it would reach in the absence of migration after 1995.

According to these scenarios, it was estimated what will have to be the total and annual net number of immigrants required in the different countries considered in order to achieve the expected goals. Four European countries were considered: France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom. Also the values for the whole EU15 have been estimated. Table 2 summarises the results of this application. For all the scenarios it is always Germany, among the four European countries, to require the highest average annual number of immigrants. Excluding scenario VI, which was formerly declared unrealistic5 by the United Nations itself, the hypothesis for which it seems to be the highest required immigration is the fifth, shaped to maintain the ratio between 15-64 and 65 and over population higher than 3.0. According to such a scenario immigration flow should be equal to 292,000 a year in France, 736,000 in Germany, 638,000 in Italy and 249,000 in the United Kingdom. For Italy, for instance, the total number of migration to achieve the goal of this scenario should be over 35 million, which is a value equivalent to 61.4% of the actual 57 million inhabitants.

Table 2: Net number of migrants required for each specific scenario by country. Values in thousands (1995-2050)
Source: United Nations, 2000. * Scenario VI is considered to be unrealistic.

Estimates based on the third scenario show that “[…] for France, UK, US and the European Union, the numbers of migrants needed to offset population decline are less than or comparable to recent past experience. While this is also the case for Germany and the Russian Federation, the migration flows in the 1990s were relatively large due to reunification and dissolution, respectively. For Italy, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Europe, a level of immigration much higher than experience in the recent past would be needed to offset population decline” (United Nations, 2000, p. 93). Moreover, in the report the number of migrants required to offset the decline in the working-age population appears considerably higher then that needed to compensate total population decline (United Nations, 2000, p. 94).
Taking a look at table 3, we can appreciate what these figures would mean in terms of composition of population among natives and foreigners and their descendants. Data refer to the percentage incidence of migrants and their descendants over entire population at the end of the projection period (2050). Obviously these figures reflect the results in table 2, so that scenario V seems to be the one which would modify the most the composition of the original population achieving a percentage of foreigners of the first and following generations equal to 40.2% in the EU15, 32.8% all over Europe. Among the four European countries Italy shows the highest value of percentage incidence in all the scenarios (53.4% in the fifth), except for the first, according to which it is Germany that has the highest value (19.8%).
So it appears that, even if United Nations defined only the sixth scenario as unrealistic, all of them actually lead to an unexpected, huge amount of immigrants, with all the attendant social and economic concerns that this would arouse.

Table 3: Percentage incidence of post-1995 migrants and their descendants in total population in 2050, by scenario and country.
Source: United Nations, 2000. * Scenario VI is considered to be unrealistic.

3.2 Some critiques to the UN Report on Replacement Migration

The United Nations Report aroused a series of discussions about the role of migration and the reliability of their own estimate. Since the estimated figures seem difficult to believe, in particular for some specific scenarios, many others have criticised the assumptions, the methodologies and the results. Some authors, for instance, noticed that in the Report the judgement about population decline and ageing seems to be too negative and also that the Report itself seems to be completely disengaged from the previous debate about the role of migrations (Saczuk, 2003, p. 5).
Other focused on the fact that the model calculations made by the United Nations were limited to a demographic analysis, which have the aim to show the size of necessary replacement migration from a ‘population numerical’ point of view (Cichon et al., 2003, p.2). In particular, in the empirical application in Cichon et al., the three authors tried to estimate the amount of migratory flows required to maintain a certain per capita GDP growth level, considering this indicator as a proxy of the living standard. The basic consideration of their work is that what needs to be taken into account is the labour force participation, since “[…] if recent per capita growth levels are the declared target, then replacement migration would lead to a total population in Europe — without a change in labour force participation of the original population — that would simply explode”, (Cichon et al., p.2).
Other critiques to the UN Report can be found in Espenshade (2001), who focused on its supposed arbitrariness and too narrow perspective. According to the author, the figures shown in the report arise no surprise, since they are based of those assumptions. In particular, Espenshade noticed that the UN Report does not refer to the existing literature on the argument and that it is based on a purely demographic approach which does not take into any account the previous studies from other fields, like economics, sociology and so on (p. 387).
Substantial critiques came also from Coleman (2000), especially for the founding of the Report about the United Kingdom. In particular, the author disapproved both the assumptions and the projection methodologies used. Tapinos (2001) underlined that the set of technical assumptions on which the UN simulations contained in the Report rest strongly influence the results. As many other scholars have already pointed out, he emphasised that the approach is too strictly demographic, based only on numbers and age distributions6. In 2005, Feld noticed that the scenario fixing the immigration level required to avoid total population reduction is the only one which could be considered realistic for every country, with a level of immigration annual flow just slightly higher than the level of the ten years before the publishing of the Report.

5 The scenario is defined unrealistic since it would, for example, require over than a billion and three hundreds millions of immigrants. This would mean take all China inhabitants and bring them all in Europe.
6 “[…] The dependency ratio is conventionally defined as the ratio of persons aged 15-64 to those aged 65 and over. Permanent immigration is assumed, with a constant age structure of net migration. In the absence of data for return migration and hence for net migration, the simulations use the observed age distribution of entrants and assume that all of them settle permanently. Hence return migration is assume to be nil. Nevertheless, some estimation for France and the United-States shown that they represent an important percentage of total inflows. Migrants are assumed to have the same fertility and mortality rates as the native-born. Furthermore, with the simulation technique used, it is not possible to calculate the proportion of foreign-born individuals at the projection horizon, but only the proportion of persons who entered the country of reception after the projection base year (1995) and their descendants, most of whom were born in that country. These proportions are not comparable with those of foreign-born individuals observed in the projection base year”, (Tapinos, 2001, p. 9).

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