10.9.2013 | Von:
Jochen Oltmer

What Consequences Does the Increase of the World Population Have for Migration Patterns?

Pendler an einem Bahnhof in Mumbai, Indien.Commuters in a train station in Mumbai, India. (© picture-alliance/AP)

Projections of population growth

According to information from the United Nations, the world population in the year 2013 totals approximately 7.1 billion. According to the medium variant projection, its size will reach over 8 billion by 2015, 9.6 billion by 2050 and 10.9 billion by 2100. The development of the earth’s population signifies two trends in the coming decades which could not be more oppositional to one another: In the (relatively) rich "North", the population will stagnate due to the low number of children and will become increasingly older because the percentage of younger people is decreasing while life expectancy is continuing to increase. In the (relatively) poor "South", however, the population size is substantially increasing and the share of young people is growing[1].

Development of the World’s Population by 2100Development of the World’s Population by 2100 Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
The continual climb of the world population will be caused almost exclusively by the growth of the populations in less developed countries, where approximately 5.7 billion people presently live, which estimations suggest will climb to around 8 billion by 2050. The population of the 49 least developed states will double from the present 900 billion to 1.8 billion. The speed of this increase, however, is slowing. The reason for this is the worldwide progressive adjustment of the average number of children that women bring into the world. At present, in the 58 states with the highest birthrates (of which 39 are in Africa, 9 in Asia, 6 in Oceania, and 4 in Latin America), women give birth to 4.9 children on average. This figure will decline significantly down to 2.8 by 2050 and 2.1 by 2100, according to UN estimations following the medium variant projection. The consequences are seen, for example, when looking at both of the most population-rich countries of the world: the population of India is expected to surpass that of China by the year 2021. The population of China should stop growing as of 2025/2030 owing to the policy implemented at the beginning of the 1980s restricting families to only having one child, and even begin to rapidly decline as of 2050, while that of India will enter a stagnation phase starting in 2030/2035.

Regional Distribution of the World’s Population according to the Medium Variant Scenario

Regional Distribution of the World’s Population according to the Medium Variant Scenario, Middle of 2012Regional Distribution of the World’s Population according to the Medium Variant Scenario, Middle of 2012 Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
Regional Distribution of the World’s Population according to the Medium Variant Scenario, Middle of 2100Regional Distribution of the World’s Population according to the Medium Variant Scenario, Middle of 2100 Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)

Pyramid of Age Structures of Populations in Developing and Industrial CountriesPyramid of Age Structures of Populations in Developing and Industrial Countries Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)

Projections of the development of migration movements

Development of Migration from the Less Developed to the Developed Regions of the WorldDevelopment of Migration from the Less Developed to the Developed Regions of the World Lizenz: cc by-nc-nd/3.0/de/ (bpb)
Although the population in poorer countries will grow while it stagnates in the industrial countries, the UN assumes that the extent of migration from the less developed countries into the more developed countries will decrease, even though in the two decades between 1985 and 2005 there was a clear increase of migration from the lesser developed into the developed countries of the world. For the period from 2000 to 2005 the UN calculated 17.6 million people migrating from less developed into more developed countries, of which 8.1 million came from Asia, 6 million from Latin America and 3.1 million from Africa. The UN has already observed a drop to 16.6 million in the five years from 2005 to 2010. This trend will continue. For the next five year period (2010-2015) the UN predicts it will sink to 12.5 million, from 2025 to 2030 it will further decrease to 11 million, and from 2045-2050 to 9.5 million migrants. Long-term predictions based on the yearly number of migrants are as follows: from 2013-2015 2.4 million people per annum are expected to move from emerging nations and developing countries to developed countries, but between 2050 and 2100 this number will drop to only one million each year.

In total it can be stated that the extent of movements from the poorer "South" towards the richer "North" will continue to decrease in the future. It was slight in past decades anyhow. This is a discovery that completely contradicts the loudly proclaimed opinion on the assumed threat to "Western" societies from mass migration from the less developed regions of the world [2].

Reasons for the low level of South-North migration

Financial resources are a crucial requirement for the development of an individual migration project. For example, formalities (i.e. documents) for emigration and immigration must be paid for, transport costs come in addition (travel costs, shipping), illegal migrants generally have to pay (expensive) smugglers. It is not to be expected that the arrival in a country of destination is immediately connected with the start of gainful employment, meaning that sometimes startup capital is necessary, savings are used, and money must be borrowed. For a large portion of the citizens of the world the realization of such a migration project is illusionary. Numerous studies have shown that poverty massively limits mobility. A large part of the (not rarely illegal) immigrants that presently reach Europe from Africa are among those that have a relatively good financial background and a comparatively high level of education.

But not only financial resources are lacking. Moreover, continual and reliable information about the place of destination is required for migration movements to reach a certain size and duration. A central element is the verbal or written transmission of knowledge about opportunities elsewhere through those who migrated prior (pioneers, so to speak) and whose information is attributed value. In light of relatively small South-North migration movements in the recent past, however, the number of these pioneer migrants and the number of relative-acquaintance networks that span continents is relatively small which means that in the poorer population of the world reliable knowledge about the possibilities the developed countries have to offer is scarce. These circumstances keep the number of South-North migrants at a low level.

Migration directions

The decline of the already small emigration from poor countries to the developed states does not mean that the total number of global migrants is decreasing Estimations proceed from the assumption that at present between 175 and 215 million people have crossed state borders as temporary or long term migrants. The largest part of these movements takes place either between the stronger developed states of the world or between the less developed. This is illustrated in the Federal Republic of Germany for example: Only 5% of all immigrants that presently reach Germany come from countries outside Europe or Turkey. Despite globalization, immigration to Germany remains, as a rule, European.

There is much evidence that movements between states regarded as more developed will not diminish in the future. This development also results from the migration policy orientation of countries in the present and foreseeable future. The borders of the developed countries are (relatively) open for skilled workers and the highly qualified, mostly coming from developed countries. Current discussions on the future of aging societies in the rich "North" clearly show that little will change regarding this orientation towards qualified and highly qualified immigrants in the coming decades. The immigration of unskilled or low skilled workers can compensate for neither the assumed problems of an aging society, i.e. the decreasing economic productivity and economical capacity for innovation, nor can the recruitment of caregivers and other medical personnel compensate for a population whose average age is continually rising and whose age-related illnesses, so to speak, will inexorably increase.

It can also be assumed that the movements between the less developed and emerging countries will rather increase in the coming decades in light of the population growth in these regions. In the future it will be developing Asian states in particular such as China, India, Thailand and Malaysia which so far have had negative migration balances that will rapidly attract ever more people. Already at the beginning of the 21st century, in both Malaysia and Thailand, over one million foreign workers were employed. Taiwan and South Korea, having undergone a rapid industrialization process in the last decade of the 20th century, became destination countries for immigrants as well. Brazil could also become an increasingly attractive destination for labor migrants [3].

This text is part of the policy brief on "Global Migration in the Future".


For the UN population projection here and in the following in detail: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2013).
Hein de Haas (2008).
Kaur (2007); Koser (2011, pp. 164f.).
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