We need a new geopolitical understanding of the migration processes that have been occurring globally over the last 50 years. Unprecedented in human history, the enormous population imbalances — one billion vs. six billion people — between the Global North (developed countries) and the Global South (developing countries) could potentially lead to an explosion of migration posing a serious challenge to the Global North countries, including Russia.
So far, economic migration prevails where internal problems faced by poor and overpopulated countries force their inhabitants to migrate in search of security and higher living standards. While factors such as military and political conflicts and technological or environmental disasters can trigger migration flows, according to Vishnevsky, "they only act as a spark falling on the gunpowder of social dissatisfaction already present in disadvantaged societies. In addition to this, there is always a mobilising ideology to channel such dissatisfaction; one such ideology is the much talked about militant Islamism, but there are others."
Many different factors can trigger uncontrollable migration, making it imperative for countries to agree on a comprehensive strategy to mitigate the risks and maximise the benefits of migration, according to Vishnevsky and Denisenko's paper Migration in a Global Context presented at the plenary session on demography of the XVII April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development.
The study is based on data from the U.N., including theWorld Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision global demographic forecast, World Bank, Russian Federal Statistics Service (Rosstat), Russian Federal Migration Service, Eurostat, and the authors' calculations.
According to the authors, societies today are not yet fully aware of the radically new situation created by the recent demographic explosion. Between 1950 and 2015, the world’s population increased by nearly 5 billion, resulting in a huge and growing demographic imbalance between the Global North and Global South and unprecedented migration pressure on developed countries.
By World Bank estimates, the total number of migrants in the world stood at 247 million in 2013 and was expected to exceed 250 million in 2015 — an unprecedented number in human history. According to Vishnevsky, "even if just one in a hundred people in the Global South were considering emigration to the Global North, it could create enormous migration pressure on developed countries." It is also worth remembering that historically, mass migration has not always been peaceful.
So far, peaceful economic migration has prevailed; high-income countries received 134 million migrants between 1950 and 2015. Geographic proximity also plays a role: while North America faces pressure from Latin American countries, Asian and African countries are major sources of migrants to Europe.
According to the authors, Russia is unlikely to avoid "strong migration pressure from Asian countries." Three-quarters of Russia's territory, which is the largest in the world, lies in Asia, yet Russia's population cannot be compared to that of Asian countries. It is virtually impossible today to predict future developments in giant Asian countries such as China, India, Pakistan, and others, as to "which political forces will come into power in these countries and how they will look at their neighbours."
Migration in the 21st century is likely to take multiple forms, including forced mass migration from wars, natural and man-made disasters, such as nuclear power plant accidents, etc. The global number of refugees was estimated at 19.5 million in 2014 and is expected to grow due to a number of factors, including the increasing effects of climate change, which could lead to rising sea levels and the flooding of coastal areas, while other regions may be affected by droughts. Russia is unlikely to avoid migration driven by such factors.
Over the past twenty years, Russia has become a major centre of immigration, mainly from former Soviet republics. According to Rosstat, the country's net migration gain totalled 8.8 million between 1992 and 2014, allowing Russia to offset by two-thirds its natural population decline.
However, short-term labour migration to Russia prevails over long-term immigration. According to the study's authors, "some two million work permits were issued in 2015 (3.7 million in 2014), which does not include migrants from EurAsEC countries (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) who do not need permits to work in Russia."
In addition, the Federal Migration Service estimated the number of illegal migrants to Russia at 2.5 million in 2015, exceeding several-fold the number of legal foreigners with temporary residence permits and permanent residency — 412,000 and 114,000, respectively — at the end of 2015.
Compared to European countries, Russia’s net migration gain is at a medium level.
This is due to several factors. Russia became part of the global migration process after the collapse of the USSR, i.e. later than most developed countries. According to Vishnevsky and Denisenko, "a new situation where Russia had to deal with an inflow of migrant workers, while lacking the required institutional and physical infrastructure or sufficient prior experience of interaction between the local and migrant populations, increased the inherent risks faced even by countries with a long history of immigration" — hence the spread of anti-immigration sentiment at a time when Russia cannot do without migrants.
Immigration is a strategic — both demographic and geopolitical — issue which needs to be addressed at the highest policy level. Russia's population is relatively small for its huge territory. In addition to this, demographic ageing and the resulting decrease in the local workforce hinder economic growth, while adding to the burden on the working population. "This alone makes it imperative to expand the central portion of the age pyramid and thus distribute the burden among a larger number of working people," Vishnevsky argues.
Depopulation of certain territories poses geopolitical risks which immigration can mitigate to mutual benefit. While host countries can add to their human capital, migrants' home countries can benefit from cash transfers, poverty reduction and better political stability (seeMigrants' Remittances Linked to Better Living Standards at Home). Russia needs therefore to develop its immigration strategy.
Basically, there are two strategy options available.
One is focused on labour market needs only and supports short-term migration, a strategy used by the Gulf countries now and by Germany between the 1960s and 1990s. The main purpose is to reap fast economic benefits from employing foreign labour. However, even temporary migrant workers need to be helped with adapting to local circumstances. Many European countries today are struggling to correct their past mistakes caused, according to the study's authors, by "temporary immigration strategies leading to the emergence of relatively large communities of migrants from other cultures, isolated from local society."
An alternative would be to encourage long-term immigration, as practised by countries such as the U.S., Canada and Australia to achieve both demographic (i.e. a larger and younger population) and geopolitical (being perceived as a foreigner-friendly country) benefits. Proponents of this strategy argue that the benefits of migration can outweigh its risks. Yet the latter policy requires consistent, long-term efforts to support the integration of immigrants beyond the first generation by helping their children become part of local society.The latter option may be preferable for Russia given its current challenges. However, it should not allow unlimited immigration. According to Vishnevsky, Russia "should accept only as many immigrants as society is capable of integrating," while setting up institutions to help improve the country’s integration capacity.