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MMC interviews Rainer Münz
“Dig the data”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2019 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

As Africa’s population soars, more of its citizens are expected to head to Europe. But for Rainer Münz, drawing such a direct correlation between swelling demographics and increased migration is too simplistic: if economies don’t grow along with population, many Africans won’t have the means to migrate. Better education, family planning, and economic growth, conversely, would boost opportunities to do so.

Many More to Come? argued that people migrating from Africa to Europe are increasingly taking less legal, more irregular routes. Could you elaborate?

Migration flows from Africa to Europe have always been mixed. Over the last 20 years the most important legal gate of entry was and is marriage, i.e. newly wed African citizens joining their spouses already residing in an EU member state. In the past, legal labour migration also played a role, but numbers have been going down over the last 10 years, in particular between 2008 and 2012. Both flows mainly concerned people migrating from the Maghreb to Europe. Significant volumes of asylum applications and irregular arrivals are a more recent development partly linked to stricter visa regulations. Asylum claims have increased between 2013 and 2017. The majority of people arriving that way are from Western Africa as well as from the Horn of Africa. Most recently, irregular arrivals of Africans in Italy have been sharply declining.

Do you expect this to continue, is the mixed migration model going to persist and increase?

Numbers of African-born people arriving and remaining in Europe for an extended period (12+ months) have not changed a lot over the last 15 years. They have fluctuated between 500,000 and 600,000 people annually. There is no indication of an imminent increase.

You have written that under any plausible scenario in the medium term, (over the next 20-30 years) socio-economic development, population growth and climate change will lead to more Africans on the move than today. Isn’t this projected trend on a direct collision course with current migration and refugee policies?

The majority of geographically mobile Africans moves within their continent as well as to the Gulf States. In the future, the number of mobile Africans is expected to increase as the African population will double between now and the year 2050. Socio-economic development and climate change might also contribute to such an increase. At first, this will lead to more migration within Africa, but it might well mean that more Africans will emigrate to Europe, Asia and North America.

The next three questions relate findings in Many More to Come? that many might find surprising. First, please briefly explain the contention that rapid population growth goes hand in hand with lower emigration.

Rapid population growth usually is associated with low education (in particular of girls and young women), early marriage, women giving birth at young ages, a high degree of subsistence farming and a low GDP per capita. All these factors are holding back migration as the large majority of people living in poor countries with high population growth do not have the means to migrate and/or are held back by family obligations. Investing in education and family planning as well as economic growth usually lead to lower birth rates. But the same change also gives more people the opportunity of becoming mobile.

Second, could you elaborate on why Africa’s youth bulge does not play a major part in emigration, either within the continent, or to destinations outside it?

A higher share of young age groups usually is the direct result of high population growth. As a result, the share of people being able to make the choice between moving and staying is smaller than in societies with smaller demographic growth and higher GDP per capita.

Third, in most of the world, urbanisation seems to act as a key driver reducing international migration. Why is this different in Africa?

Many parts of Africa experience high population growth and rapid urbanisation at the same time. Growing numbers of people move from the countryside to cities. While subsistence farmers may never be able to save enough money for emigration, city dwellers have more opportunities doing so. And some of those who have successfully moved from their native rural places of birth to a larger city are confident that this experience enables them to make the move abroad.

The gravity model findings you used in the study show that high population growth, a higher share of young people, and a low degree of urbanisation in a given African country go hand in hand with lower emigration from that country. Were you surprised at these findings? They sound rather counterintuitive and certainly contrary to popular understanding…

Intuition might help you developing a hypothesis. But in the end, we should rely on available data. And they speak a clear language. Poverty is a trap that prevents the majority of Africans (and people in many other parts of the world) from moving to other places. Lifting people out of poverty by providing access to skills and a cash income empowers more of them to make choices. Migrating or having fewer children are part of these options that become available.

Between 2019 and 2030, Africa’s population is set to almost double, from 1.3 to 2.5 billion people. Your “slow development” scenario suggests an increase in migration from Africa in the same period from 1.4 million per year now to 2.8 million and with the “rapid development” scenario from the present 1.4 to 3.5 million per year in 2050 (2.5 times more). And most of these would migrate within Africa?

These scenarios are not predictions, but calculate what might happen under given assumptions. The slow development scenario leads to a doubling of Africa’s population. If migration rates stay the same this simply translates into twice as many migrants. More rapid development goes hand in hand with slightly less population growth, but GDP per capita increases will make migration more likely. Initially this leads to a higher absolute number of international migrants. These calculations do not indicate how many of them might be leaving the African continent.

Migration transition theory suggests that migration first rises with economic development, up to a GDP per capita threshold of roughly of 7,000 to 13,000 (USD) dollars per year, after which the relationship is reversed, and people are more likely to stay in their home countries. Yet you identified three countries where the threshold had been met and which are still emigration countries. Do you have any idea why this is the case?

The transition theory – also known as “migration hump” – is based on a statistical correlation. In reality, as predicted by theory, we find almost no emigration from very poor countries, but among those with slightly higher GDP per capita there are both countries with high and with low emigration. The same is true for countries above the threshold. Poland, for example, has had a GDP per capita above $13,000 per year since 2008, but has experienced mass emigration until 2015 as its citizens got free access to labour markets across the EU. Turkey has a GDP per capita around $10,000 per year and has experienced very little emigration, but considerable immigration (already before the arrival of millions of Syrian refugees).

It will take a long time before most African countries reach the tipping point of a GDP per capita of between 7,000 and 13,000 international dollars per year. What will we have in the meantime when we add climate change and other stress factors into the mix? Is the threat of instability and conflict even very high (producing more displacement)?

Available indicators hint at more migration within Africa and more internal displacement linked to climate change and conflict, but possibly also at more people leaving the continent.

In terms of the global population decline, from a demographic point of view is there an inevitable continuum of reduction? How will such a decline be halted? How will the future look in terms of generalised decline?

Global population decline might take place after the year 2100. It will be the result of more people dying than being born. Long before that, there will be regional population decline. Today rich countries like Japan, mid-income countries like Hungary, Romania and Russia, as well as poorer countries like Kyrgyzstan are already experiencing population decline. Soon China will join this group as a result of its one-child policy that lasted for more than 40 years. The fastest remedy would be immigration, but the example of Japan shows that demographic shrinking does not necessarily translate into socio-economic decline.

According to a recent Lancet report, all regions in the world are showing fertility decline, with Europe as one of the leading regions in this regard.

The Lancet article refers to data provided by the UN Population Division based on national statistics (wherever available). These data do not show universal fertility decline. In the USA and Canada, the number of children per woman has not changed since the mid-1970s. In the EU and in China, the average number of children has slightly increased since the 1990s.

We also have increased aging, but what will happen when the generation turnover hits Europe?How serious are the repercussions and the problems of “replacement” in your view?

Demographic ageing is the result of a truly positive development: mortality is declining while our life expectancy increases. This leads to higher numbers of elderly citizens. If retirement age remains fixed while life expectancy increases, ageing makes the financing of pensions more difficult. In order to make pension systems more resilient it would be necessary that people work longer and retire at a later stage in life. This, in turn, would require many more people engaging in re-skilling and lifelong learning as well as pay schemes that do not link higher income to higher age. Ageing of electorates also has political repercussions. Many elderly tend to be less interested in long-term issues – including reforms that would make pension systems more resilient.

To what extent do you think automation, AI and robotics will compensate for the population decline in Europe and other global North states? Or is the only way to maintain economic strength to bring in migrants?

Admitting regular or irregular migrants does not automatically strengthen the economy of a receiving country. Very much depends on the skills that migrants bring along and on their ability to join the labour force. Comparative data for the EU shows that people arriving as asylum seekers being granted refugee status as well as those arriving via marriage migration on average need more than 10 years before reaching labour force participation rates of 50%; which is about 15-20 percentage points below labour force participation of natives.

The current attitude to migrants and refugees is not conducive to bringing large numbers into countries of the global North. Do you think this attitude will soften or harden in the future?

Current public attitudes do not necessarily translate into fewer arrivals. Donald Trump got elected on an anti-immigrant platform. Apparently, this has not affected the issuance of Green Cards, while asylum claims became more frequent than during the Obama administration. The Polish government has also signalled that immigrants might not be welcome, but available statistics show that Poland has issued over two million (mostly short-term) residence permits to Ukrainian citizens over the last four years. These are signs that political rhetoric, migration policies and actual figures can differ a lot. Labour market gaps in key sectors of an economy can also lead to political approaches that are more pragmatic.

Do you think there could be an alternative migration model as a compromise? More like the Gulf States model, or more circular migration? Will it be an economic necessity for policies to change, or will technology fill the labour gap?

Today EU countries issue more than two million residence permits for a period of 12+ more months annually. More than 60 percent of these residence permits go to people admitted as asylum seekers, refugees, newlywed spouses and other dependent family members. In all these cases, compatibility with the needs of European labour markets plays no role. In contrast to this, only 10-15 percent of all residence permits (12+ month) are issued to regular labour migrants coming from non-EU countries. European countries might need to change that balance by trying to attract migrants that are selected for their talent and skills. At the same time there are some 1.3 million EU citizens migrating within the EU every year. Their labour force participation is high, but the majority of them do not stay for good, but rather moves on or returns to the home country. As such, free movement of labour within the EU has created a flexible workforce consisting of EU migrants. Only the aspect of flexibility is comparable to the situation in the Gulf States, but EU migrants are not generally recruited by agencies or member states, yet are free to select or change their employers, get equal pay and to claim most available benefits just like natives.

In your work with International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD), what sort of projects or recommendations are you making for future planning?

My work for IOM and in the context of KNOMAD relates to the analysis of data and trends. Recommendations are limited to improved data collection, forecasting methods and more realistic assumptions about future migration flows.

Some writers commenting on the rise of technology and the decline of populations talk of the eventual end of international migration. What’s your view, not just of African migration but global migration? What of the emerging markets and China, Russia, Japan or even Brazil? Will it soon become a seller’s market in terms of migrant labour?

The eventual end of international migration is an assumption on which several development theories and most international demographic projections are based. This is less related to the rise of technology, but to a global convergence hypothesis. In the future, that is the assumption, living standards will converge and this will lead either to less migration or even to zero net migration. Personally, I do not think that this is a likely development.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the global compacts on migration and refugees have many aspects relating to the role of migration and increasing mobility. Do you think these provisions and aspirations are enough, or do we need a new, bolder vision to deal with the world’s migration and refugee or displacement question?

The global compacts on migration and refugees as well as the SDGs have emerged from multilateral negotiations with the UN framework. They will serve as starting points for future dialogue between sending and receiving countries. In order to have such a dialogue, we have to understand that sending and receiving countries might have quite diverging interests and perspectives. Most receiving countries would like to avoid the emergence of any legally binding international framework giving non-citizens a right to enter a particular country without founded fear of persecution. Ideally, they would become more selective by choosing who is allowed to enter and who is not. With respect to rejected asylum seekers and non-citizens without valid residence permits, receiving countries would, however, be interested in a framework that requires sending countries cooperating in the readmission of their own citizens abroad. Many sending countries have opposite interests. For them the emigration of young adults that might otherwise be unemployed and unhappy at home is perceived as a political safety valve and as unique opportunity to generate foreign currency income by way of remittances. At the same time, local cooperation in the readmission of nationals is hugely unpopular. Reconciling these views is not an easy task, but there will be no safe, orderly and legal migration without bilateral and multilateral frameworks.

Are you pessimistic or optimistic, dystopian or utopian?

I am not pessimistic about the future, but I see many challenges, including some for which we have not even started preparing ourselves. The majority of them are largely unrelated to migration but might lead to future migration flows.