Poverty, overcrowding, erosion and wars are pressuring more people to leave their homelands and migrate than ever before, laying the conditions for what could become "the human crisis of our age," the United Nations reported Tuesday.
In its annual report, the U.N. Fund for Population Activities said that, unlike the situation in earlier eras, modern immigrants are "pushing into territory already occupied by others." Instead of rushing for frontier land in a modern Oklahoma Territory, the immigrants are heading into European and North American cities "already under stress."
As a result, "options for successful migration are fewer than ever before," the agency said.
The fund estimated that there are 100 million foreign immigrants worldwide, almost 2% of the world's total population. About 17 million are refugees, mainly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Many millions of other migrants have fled from one region to another within their countries, but the U.N. agency said it could not estimate those numbers.
Immigrants tend to concentrate with their compatriots in a foreign country, increasing their visibility and making the citizens of that country more aware of their cultural differences, the fund said. On top of this, the agency went on, immigrants tend to be young people "in the peak years of fertility." The growth rate of their population is thus higher than that of the population as a whole.
The report said that official immigration figures tend to underestimate the actual totals by a substantial amount. Official records show that almost 7.4 million immigrants entered the United States legally during the 1980s. The fund estimated that another 10 million may have entered illegally. About 10% of Mexico's labor force is estimated to live in the United States.
In a similar period, 15 million people migrated to Western Europe legally, most coming from North Africa, Turkey and the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe. Within Western Europe, there was also a good deal of migration from Portugal to other countries, notably France.
The Population Fund listed several strong migration patterns: refugees from the former Yugoslav federation to Germany; illegal Indonesian migrants to Malaysia; Indians and Pakistanis to Japan; Mexicans to the United States; Colombians to Venezuela; Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians to France and the rest of West Europe.
These immigrants send back $66 billion to their homelands every year, a total that makes these remittances second in value only to oil in world trade. In fact, the sum is greater than all the foreign aid that the rich countries send to the developing world.
Although many programs have been tried in the last few decades to encourage rural development and thus stem the tide of migrants from rural areas to cities, the report concluded that most have been unsuccessful. They failed mainly because governments neglected to coordinate these rural programs with other national policies that have a greater impact on population movements.
In short, promoting industry and trade, improving roads and other areas of infrastructure and setting food prices count for more than rural programs.
In discussing urban growth in the developing world, the Population Fund said Shanghai would pass New York on the list of the largest metropolitan area populations in the world, and Calcutta, Bombay and Beijing would move ahead of Los Angeles by the year 2000.
There is an almost wistful quality about the report's discussion on stemming international migration. South Korea, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Mexico have managed to lower the rate of emigration by various means, it said, including education and health programs, family planning services, and, perhaps most important, considerable economic growth.
But no one foresees enough improvement in the economies of most developing countries to assuage the present crisis.
In 1990, the Population Fund listed Mexico City with a metropolitan area population of 20.2 million as the largest in the world followed by Tokyo (18.1 million), Sao Paulo (17.4), New York (16.2), Shanghai (13.4), Los Angeles (11.9), Calcutta (11.8), Buenos Aires (11.5), Bombay (11.1) and Seoul (11.0).
In the year 2000, the U.N. agency estimated, Mexico City would still be the largest in the world with 25.6 million.