08 September 2006

Falling birthrates affect immigration levels globally

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The Internation Herald Tribune is reporting that as birthrates plummet across the developed world, politicians and demographers have been pondering whether immigration can provide the population boost needed by many countries to supplement shrinking labor forces and rebalance aging populations.

From Spain and Canada to the Czech Republic and Singapore, countries are creating and amending immigration laws to attract certain foreigners in order to expand their populations. New immigrants not only add to population numbers but also tend to have more children, providing aging societies with a much-needed infusion of youth.

In Europe, Spain has been spared the worst consequences of extraordinarily low birthrates, at least for now, by a massive influx of immigrants who have helped fuel the country's economic expansion.

There were 3.5 million immigrants in 2005, up from 900,000 in 2000, according to the Spanish National Statistics Institute. By far the greatest number were from Latin America, and so meshed naturally with Spain's language, religion and culture.

Elsewhere, countries like Canada and Australia have in recent years successfully recruited skilled immigrants to buttress their populations, providing fast-track citizenship for foreigners with university education, talent or cash to invest in the country.

In August, Singapore - traditionally wary of outsiders - announced a similar program.

But experts agree that immigration is unlikely to provide a major solution for Europe's fertility woes.

"Immigration is the least predictable factor in the population debate - the wild card," said Tomas Sobotka of the Vienna Institute of Demography. "If Europe is to rely on immigrants to help solve its birth problem, it needs to get a lot better at integration."

Many European countries are struggling with limited success to integrate into their populations immigrants who do not share their culture. Indeed, even though Spain has largely accepted massive illegal immigration from Latin America, it is desperately seeking to curtail the boatloads of African immigrants arriving en masse this year.

What is more, immigration is notoriously hard to direct, since immigrants follow perceived opportunity and flows respond to international pressures that are not under the control of any one country.

For example, the massive Latin American migration to Spain in the past five years was largely the result of inflation in South America combined with the tightening of U.S. border controls after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said Rickard Sandell, a senior analyst at the Royal Elcano Institute, a policy research organization in Madrid.

Both Spain, population 44 million, and Canada, population 32 million, now seamlessly absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants a year, enough to ensure that their overall populations grow a bit, despite birthrates of 1.3 and 1.7 per woman, respectively. A country needs a rate of 2.1 to maintain its population.

In contrast, immigration at far lower levels has met popular resistance in the European countries that need it most, linguistically and ethnically homogenous nations like the Czech Republic, Italy and Bulgaria.

In Spain, the integration of South Americans into the workforce has caused little angst.

"We have so far not seen many social problems, partly because the immigration has satisfied an economic demand," Sandell said. "Every country would do this if they could, but the problem is that in most places such numbers would end up quickly with social problems and racism and a backlash."

In Canada, a nation with a long tradition of immigration, "the government does what it can to increase population because fertility rates are low, and people understand that," said Jeffrey Reitz, a professor of immigration and ethnic studies at the University of Toronto. "But Canada may be unique because polls show that most Canadian support more immigration, not less. In much of Europe, in countries like France, they may want skilled immigrants, but not many."

Countries that accept large-scale immigration tacitly accept a new demographic future: Today 18 percent of the Canadian population is foreign-born, and the majority of people in Toronto and Vancouver will be of non-European origin within 10 years, Reitz said. If high immigration rates continue, 40 percent of Spain's population may be foreign- born by 2050, Sandell said.

Such shifts would not be politically acceptable in much of Europe, experts say. The European Commission, which issued its first "Green Paper" on Europe's population dilemma last year, concluded that Europe could not absorb nearly enough immigrants to make up for an estimated shortfall of 20 million laborers by 2030.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is strong in many countries, like Italy, where people worry loudly that new immigrants will take jobs and benefit from government subsidies.

Campaigning for re-election this spring, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy said that he "did not want a multiethnic and multicultural society."

In Britain, where immigrants from former Eastern bloc countries were initially welcomed as much-needed laborers, that feeling faded as the numbers rose, and the government now says it will limit entry for Romanian and Bulgarian job seekers.

The problem is starker in the East European countries themselves.

"Immigration is not a solution for Europe, and especially not here in the Czech Republic because people are very hostile to foreigners," said Jitka Richtarikova, a demographer at Charles University in Prague who has advocated government reforms to promote more native births.

Several years ago, a desperate Czech Labor Ministry decided to give immigration a try, starting an incentive program that granted permanent residence to skilled immigrants from certain other Slavic nations, like Bulgaria, Croatia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. It found few takers, although East Europeans flock to Britain.

At the same time, Asian carmakers like Hyundai are opening huge factories in the Czech Republic that are likely to be staffed largely by Polish, Slovak, Ukrainian and German workers, according to Milos Calda, a professor of international relations at Charles University.

He expects his country to become more ethnically diverse. "But the government has to be very careful about an influx of immigrants," he said, "since it might backfire in the next election."

Last month, Singapore became the latest country to encourage immigration, setting up a Citizenship and Population Unit to "recruit newcomers, particularly those with skills."

Singaporean women had an average of more than 4 children 40 years ago, but have only 1.24 today, a rate about equal to the lowest in Europe.

"To grow and flourish, we must welcome those who can help us to reach our goals," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said recently, urging his people to accept newcomers. "That is the way to build Singapore for Singaporeans."

In Spain, Latin American immigrants provided a fortuitous rescue for a population freefall, but no one is certain it can be sustained.

As South American economies stagnated in the late 1990s, huge numbers of laborers needed somewhere to go. Entry into the United States became much tougher in 2001 because of tighter security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

At the same time, the European Union dropped visa requirements for most South Americans, meaning that willing workers could simply show up at Spain's airports and be admitted into the country, albeit technically as tourists.

For the past seven years, Spain turned a blind eye to these illegal immigrants, who solved a serious demographic and economic problem. The government made little effort to stem the flow and even offered immigrants legal status once they had been self-supporting for three years.

Spain's national statistics institute estimates that the country will continue to absorb 250,000 immigrants a year indefinitely. But Eurostat, the European Union's statistical branch, puts the likely number at 100,000. Over several decades, that degree of variation makes the difference between population growth and shrinkage.

In any event, the sheer number of immigrants from Latin America may turn into a problem for Spain, experts say.

"If times get tough, the fact that we all speak Castellano may not save us from social conflict," Sandell said. "Will culture and language make us turn out differently than France or Italy? I think it is too early to say."

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