Migration, not climate, is world’s biggest challenge – Bill Jamieson

Migrants heading in a 'caravan' to the US arrive at a sports centre in Mexico City. Donald Trump has deployed thousands of US troops to the border in case they attempt to cross illegally (Picture: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty)
Migrants heading in a 'caravan' to the US arrive at a sports centre in Mexico City. Donald Trump has deployed thousands of US troops to the border in case they attempt to cross illegally (Picture: Alfredo Estrella/AFP/Getty)
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The rise of the world’s population is set to create mass migration on an unprecedented scale, writes Bill Jamieson.

What today is the biggest long-term challenge we face? Climate change is certainly one; debt and poverty reduction another.

But both are dwarfed by a phenomenon already widely evident across Europe and which has already forced governments into policy change unthinkable barely a decade ago.

It is the mass movements of populations from poorer countries to richer ones: movement on a scale that is set to dwarf the migrant crisis of 2014-16.

The abject misery of thousands of fleeing migrants – from the 7,000–strong ‘caravan’ heading to the Mexican-US border to the continuing arrivals of desperate people from Africa and the Middle East – is seldom far from our television screens and newspaper headlines.

The ‘migrant caravan’ is case in point. This started with 1,000 people fleeing oppression in Honduras. It has gathered numbers as it passed through Guatemala and El Salvador and is now thought to comprise 7,000 moving towards the Mexican-US border. Even allowing for numbers to fall away on this arduous trek of hundreds of miles – particularly families with young children – the direction of hope, and travel, is clear and has already prompted the Trump administration to call in thousands of troops to guard the border.

Nearer home was a minor story this week that spoke to a giant desperation and the lengths to which migrants will go to escape their circumstances. Fifteen children and six adults were found inside a refrigerated lorry entering the port of Newhaven in Sussex. The lorry was stopped on its arrival from Dieppe in France, when it was found to be carrying the refugees, all of whom said they were from Vietnam.

In a separate incident, two people were arrested after a boat carrying eight migrants believed to be Iranian was stopped off the Kent coast. And seven others, also claiming to be Iranian, were stopped at Dover Western Docks after a call to police.

READ MORE: Will Scotland’s population shrink without its own migration system?

Small though these incidents may be in number, the desperation they reveal is colossal. A sharp decline in refugee numbers arriving at European borders from the levels of two years ago might suggest that this phenomenon has largely gone away and is no longer an issue. That would be naïve. Population statistics – and in particular those from economically impoverished areas – make clear that we may be only at the beginning of a massive global shift of peoples.

Existing trends make this development startlingly clear. The population of Africa has already risen sharply – from around 140 million in 1900 to one billion in 2010. But where to from here? According to authoritative ‘medium scenario’ projections from the UN, the populations of 26 African countries will rise to 2.5 billion by 2050 and climb to four billion in 2100.

Since 2014, more than 1.8 million migrants have entered Europe, some 919,000 of these from Syria applying for asylum. Taking a wider view, the UN Human Rights Convention estimated the number of forcibly displaced people world-wide during the refugee crisis at 59.7 million, the highest level since the Second World War.

Little wonder that signatories to the Schengen agreement – 22 EU member countries and four EFTA members who scrapped border checks between them – have sought to re-establish border controls and find ways of spreading asylum applicants more equitably between them. It is no exaggeration to say that immigration is a potent issue across many EU countries, Germany, Sweden, Italy, France and the Netherlands prominent among them.

It is tempting to dismiss this as Malthusian – a panic over population numbers with dire forebodings that never come to pass. Improved farming methods, changes in food tastes and diet, economic development, changes in lifestyle and birth rate – all these can contribute to a far less fearful outcome than projections of population numbers suggest. But there can be little doubt, not only that population numbers are growing fast, but also expectations of a better life that can be achieved by migration. And it is this combination, leading to a movement en masse, that speaks both to the desperation of millions of people and the power of expectations.

READ MORE: Forget Brexit, the migrant crisis is Europe’s big challenge

The world we know is set to change dramatically. The population of Nigeria alone, currently the world’s seventh largest country, is expected to surpass that of the US and become the third most populous country in the world before 2050. And this is just part of a forecast worldwide rise in population from 7.6 billion currently to 8.6 billion in 2030 and 9.8 billion in 2050. But it is not population growth alone, but the concentration of global population growth in the poorest countries that presents a formidable challenge to governments in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Where are we currently in the UK? The latest net migration statistics show that in the year ending March 2018, net migration to the UK was 271,000. Numbers are certainly well down on the period 2002-2011 when the ONS estimated that legal non-EU net migration was 2.1 million.

But it is by no means clear what final settlement will emerge from Brexit on border controls. With leading business organisations, farmers, the tourist and visitor sector and our health and welfare services critically dependent on migrant labour, there is formidable pressure to ensure that border controls will not impede the flow of those who come to work and who have skills and qualifications we deeply need.

In this, Scotland may consider itself in an advantageous position. Immigration has barely surfaced as a political issue. Indeed, the prevailing concern has been to ensure open borders for many sectors of the economy that are heavily dependent on overseas staff. Indeed, our bigger problem is the 22 per cent inactivity rate (those not in employment, education or training). But that should not blind us to the scale and depth of the geo-political upheaval that lies ahead. Millions are already on the move. And tens of millions are set to follow. In the desperate search for basic food, clothing, medicines and shelter, the world should prepare for a population upheaval without precedent.