Source Asia Sentinel

HONG KONG, SAR: Spoken or not, the issue of migration is an overt or covert issue for much of the politics of the world today, especially in a year with elections scheduled in eight of the world's 10 most populous nations. That is nothing new but it has been speeded up by two factors: the ease of travel and, most important of all, gaps between fertility rates and hence the demand and supply of labor. Migration has its own mostly economic dynamics over which politicians have limited control. Today’s global reality is of massive refugee situations in several spots such as Turkey/Syria, not forgetting the millions of Palestinians who ended up in Gaza or Jordan or Lebanon.
More immediately, in the US, former and possible future president Donald Trump is making illegal migration across its long border with Mexico of people from all over Latin America and the Caribbean into a major election issue. Thus, even the few countries that have long believed in the benefits of accepting migrants can become hostile if they feel or can be made to feel threatened. Murders and rapes by migrants, especially illegal ones, are an easy win for scaremongering politicians. The phenomenon is not new. However, numerous studies from Malaysia, where tens of thousands of Indonesians illegally crossed porous borders to work, to Germany with its Gastarbeiters, to the United States with its surging numbers from Latin America, show there is no causal relationship between crime and the influx of migrants, both legal and illegal. Migrants, the studies show, dare arrest to get into nearby countries because they want to work, and they do jobs native-born citizens don’t want to do because wages are too low and the benefits too paltry. 
While the perception that immigration fuels crime is an important source of anti-immigrant sentiment – and electoral fodder – the World Bank, using data for 2003-2010, estimates the overall impact of economic immigration in Malaysia on crime and suggests that immigration actually has little effect. A US Justice Department study on Texas migration found US-born citizens are over two times more likely to be arrested for violent crimes, 2.5 times more likely to be arrested for drug crimes, and over four times more likely to be arrested for property crimes than migrants, especially illegal ones, who want to keep their heads down to avoid arrest.
Cultural identity gets in the way
At the other end of the scale from countries perceived to be threatened by immigration are those with such a precise notion of their ethnic and cultural identity that there was long resistance to even discussing the possibility that significant immigration might cause more good than harm. Two which seem to fall into that category are South Korea and Japan, in both of which years of very low fertility are now confronting the reality that even if rates should by some miracle recover, it would still be at least a generation before the average age and native population of working age could be stabilized.
Foreign workers are increasingly accepted but unless they get permanent status and can bring spouses or find them locally, such migration has limited long-term value. Korea is in much the same position as Japan – but worse in terms of current fertility at 0.9 compared with Japan’s 1.3. North Korea, poor and currently only half the South’s 51.7 million but has a median age of 35.6 compared with 45.0 in the South. Its fertility rate of 1.8 is double that of the South.
The population gap is set to narrow sharply. Taiwan is similar to Japan and now has a median age of 44 compared with China’s 39.8 but a slightly higher fertility rate. It has some 700,000 foreign workers but permanent migration, mostly Chinese from Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, is insignificant. All of the above have resorted to temporary worker fixes without seriously addressing the politically difficult issue of settlers of unfamiliar racial and cultural background.
Singapore and Hong Kong have even lower fertility. Singapore’s ethnic mix makes immigration from various sources politically easier though still subject to citizen unease when numbers become too obvious. Hong Kong may remain attractive enough to see inflow from the mainland but numbers are unlikely to be sufficient for a sustained increase in population given that the median age is already 46.8 or eight years more than the US.
No solution to low birth rates
In none of these cases has there been any sign that pro-natalist policies actually work despite especially big efforts over many years by Singapore. As for China, its chances of improving fertility is severely impeded by the gender imbalance caused by a mix of the three decades of one-child policy and the extraordinary male dominance of the ruling Communist Party. China is also too populous for immigration to make much difference unless it is willing and able to tap the one continent which continues to have fertility levels well above replacement – Africa where fertility is 4.1.
There is no country in Asia east of Afghanistan with fertility much above 2.1 live births per mother, regarded as the minimum replacement level, apart from Pakistan, Cambodia, and the Philippines (where it is declining steeply). Thailand’s median age is now 41.0 years, slightly older than the United Kingdom and with a fertility rate of just 1.3. Indeed the Thai economy has for some time now been sustained by the flow of manpower from Cambodia and Myanmar, the latter with a population of 55 million which should be the equal of Thailand if it had not had fifty years of bad government.
Thailand’s experience is a reminder of two factors which do not apply everywhere. First, it owes little to government policy and much to the supply and demand for labor across relatively porous borders. Second, and probably most important in an international context, is that Cambodian and Myanmar people do not look significantly different from Thais. Although they may have very different languages and have fought many wars in the past, they share religious and cultural links. Thailand has also long been a destination for Chinese.
The issue of appearance and cultural background also explains why Japan’s first worker imports were South Americans of Japanese origin, followed by Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. As those supplies shrink, they are importing labor from the Philippines and Indonesia. But there is a clear reluctance in East Asia to recruit from South Asia, let alone Africa. Decrying de facto policies based on appearance and skin or hair color will not make this issue go away. It is usually more important than language or religion.
The countries that actively encourage immigration increasingly try to look ethnically diverse in their sources, thus Australia, which had a Whites Only policy till the 1970s, turned increasingly to East Asia, then South Asia, and now other regions. Net migration has averaged about 250,000 annually over the past decade, the issue of illegal migrants and asylum seekers remains a hot political topic even though actual numbers are very small relative to official intake. As elsewhere the issue is less immigration per se than perception and the degree of government control over numbers and source.
Brexit and immigration
The gap between perception and reality in the popular mind that often arises was seen in the UK’s vote to exit the European Union. Immigration was a factor in the narrow vote for Brexit. Yet many of the EU migrants who caused this concern were in reality only temporary workers, leaving their families back home in poorer parts of the EU such as Romania. Meanwhile most migrant settlers in the UK, then as now, were from outside Europe. The loss of freedom of movement from the EU to UK simply increased demand for labor, especially for workers from Asia and Africa to care for an aging population.
Immigration remains a political issue in the UK, having averaged 700,000 a year in 2022 and 2023 – 1 percent of the population each year. Demand for tighter rules is certain to remain a political issue but no one expects significant immigration to cease and the percentage of those categorized as non-white not to continue to increase. It is now 18 percent having been less than 1 percent in 1950, driven by a mix of labor demand, former colonial links, globalization of commerce, family reunion policies, students, and asylum seekers. London’s population is 37 percent white British, 17 percent other white, 21 percent Asian (mostly South Asian but includes Chinese and Vietnamese), 14 percent black (combining Caribbean and African origin), mixed 3 percent, other non-white 6 percent. The political issue is more the gap between major cities and the suburban and rural areas where local identity may resent such developments.
Paris is not very different from London though the migrant sources reflect its colonial history but with less collection of ethnic data, Asia excludes the subcontinent and Africans are mostly originally from the Maghreb but also a large number of blacks are from former French-ruled territories in West Africa. The issue of supposed Islamization is a political issue in both France and the UK, but especially in France due not so much to Christianity as to the origin of immigration and France’s strongly secular, anti-clerical self-image.
The Netherlands has been unable to form a government because the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party of Geert Wilders won more seats than any other – of many – parties in 2023 but is seen as too extreme to find coalition partners to govern. Ironically, Wilders is actually himself part Indonesian through his mother. Indeed people with immigrant family histories sometimes seem attracted to anti-immigrant politics – in the UK, former prime minister Boris Johnson is of Turkish descent and right-wing Conservative Party ministers include Priti Patel and Suella Braverman, both of Indian-East African background like Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, and Kemie Badenoch, of Nigerian parenthood. Donald Trump, the US’s biggest advocate of shutting down migration from what he terms “shit-hole countries,” is only two generations away from his German ancestry. His third wife Melania was born in present-day Slovenia.
Roadblock in Sweden
Sweden’s self-image as a rich country doing good via very open policy towards refugees has recently had to take a knock after disturbances in Stockholm where some large parts of the city are home to current and past refugee families from many countries but especially large numbers from Somalia, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Bosnia. Failure of integration into a once homogenous society became a key political issue which forced policy change.
In Italy in particular and to a lesser extent Spain with a long period of low birth rates created a demand for labor which in the case of Italy saw it become a magnet not so much for people from nearby North Africa but people from south of the Sahara risking their lives taking leaky boats from the coast of Libya in particular to Italy. Given the potential numbers involved the perception of an invasion threat is easily aroused even if actual numbers are limited. Migrant arrivals over the past decade have mostly been from nearby European countries such as Albania and with Chinese, Indian, Filipino, and Pakistani populations well exceeding those of sub-Saharan African countries (principally Nigeria). The current right-wing government of Meloni has been trying to stem the flow of boat people from Africa, meanwhile increasing visas for non-EU contract workers.
Russia's fertility rate of 1.4 is low but beats Ukraine's 1.2. However it would be a lot lower for the Muslim areas, principally Tatarstan and the Caucasus republics. Once a prime source of slaves for the markets of Constantinople and Bukhara, it increasingly relies on labor from its former subjects in Central Asia where fertility remains far above Asian average and for whom Russian wages are still attractive. The region's most populous country, Uzbekistan (37 million) has a fertility rate of 3.3 – almost as high as Pakistan’s. That's not to suggest that the heirs of Timur-i-Lang (Tamerlane) are about to descend on their Iranian or other neighbors. But the fertility difference between Russian Russia and its former or remaining ethnic minorities is extreme.
Flow changes direction
For four centuries Europe exported tens of millions of people who settled the lands of the Americas and Australia which had been seized from the previous occupants. Now the people flow has changed direction. Likewise China, thanks mainly to its Mongol and especially Mongol overlords, exported surplus people to what are now Yunnan, Manchuria, Mongolia, and Xinjiang. Similarly, those processes may well go into reverse. At the very least, they are yesterday’s story.
East Asia’s demographic crisis is in fact far worse than almost anywhere in Europe, where fertility rates range from 1.3 in Italy to 1.5 in Germany, 1.6 in Netherlands, 1.7 in UK, and 1.8 in France. The European experience seems to suggest that policies on employment rights and childcare matter more than cash handouts in encouraging births. East Asia may well follow, though it has a lot of catching up to do even with Europe’s low fertility.
East Asia does, however, possibly not face the challenges of southern and western Europe. There is no Africa on its doorstep and little colonial legacy for that to become the first platform for migration from formerly subject lands. China is not a demographic threat to Japan or Korea, and China itself remains protected from unwanted migration by high mountains, deserts, and seas. All three resist the idea of accepting large numbers of permanent migrants from South Asia, let alone Africa. Indeed, resistance to seemingly humanitarian acceptance of refugees finds few regional advocates as the Rohingya have found even in Muslim Malaysia, or in 1979 when then Prime Minister Mahathir threatened to “shoo” or “shoot” away the Vietnamese.
Most countries will have to get used to the idea of fewer people as the world fertility rate is down to 2.3, and Asia overall is now at 1.9 (the same as Latin America). Of course, country-by-country variations in labor supply and demand will determine actual movements, with Out of Africa being the obvious trend of the future. Another factor built into the next 50 years is the still relatively high fertility rates being sustained by several predominantly Muslim countries, notably Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, and Palestine – though not Turkey, Bangladesh, Iran, or Indonesia. If not already, religion becomes again a political issue between and within states.
Demographics and labor demand/supply will continue to play a critical role in politics, whether local, between states, or between continents.