This summer Spain has seen the numbers of migrants reaching her shores from the nearby African coast increase markedly as Italy has toughened its stance after years of migration from Libya. Those in search of a better life have trodden a route to the Iberian peninsula. In May alone Andalusia saw 3,400 migrants arrive, and the total numbers for this year across spain are set to double from last year to an estimated 50,000. Against Spain’s total population of 46 million it is tiny, you can get twice that in the Camp Nou for a Barcelona game, but yet again it has raised the debate that seems to be defining our politics these days as politicians of all stripes seek to ‘weaponise’ the issue for their own gain, often regardless of the facts, and wherever you are in the world.
The developed world has a problem with it’s population. We’re not having enough kids and it looks like we are going to live a lot longer than we can afford to. For much of history anywhere around the world, most people ensured that they would be looked after in their final years by having lots of kids, hopeful that enough of them would survive into adulthood to keep Granny and Granpops fed until they snuffed it some time in their sixties if they were fortunate. The same simple system is very much alive in the developing world. Us lucky Westerners have been lulled into a false sense of security by the relatively easy times since the end of WWII as most countries established some sort of welfare state that would put a roof over your head, food on your table, and a hospital bed if you were unable to provide those things for yourself. It was undoubtedly a positive step forward, and has vastly improved the lives of a great many in the intervening years…. But…. it doesn’t change the underlying maths, you still need loads of kids to become wage earners and tax payers, and make sure you don’t live too long. We have exactly reversed that trend in the Western world. If you strip out the effects of immigration, birth rates have declined to less than two per couple, populations are slowly declining, and Granny and Grandpops are backpacking the Inca trail in their mid seventies.
There are three ways to fix this problem. Get people to have more kids… not so easy in an expensive world where the majority of working age women also hold down full time jobs, and wages in real terms have been stagnant for a decade. Education and housing costs are rising so that many young adults do not find themselves financially able to start a family until well into their thirties. Another solution is to radically raise the retirement age. In Spain you can expect to live until you are nearly 83. When national pensions were introduced, retirement age was generally pitched at just above the life expectancy at the time, hence the more or less universal age of 65. Go and grab Grandma and Grandpops off the Inca trail and explain to them they need to stay at their desks until they are 85. In countries that have tinkered with increasing pensionable age by a couple of years it has rarely been received well.
Or you can import strong, young people ready to work hard. It’s not hard to find them, they are just over the horizon in rubber boats. I’m sure I don’t need to explain what an unpopular and divisive topic this has become. It is probably the number one subject shaping developed world politics. Wariness of the unknown, and of the dilution of their cultural identity, these fears have been seized upon by political movements keen to moblise them in whatever direction they choose to steer it. Donald Trump has used it to get him into the White House, in the UK it misguidedly fuelled a great deal of the vote to leave the European Union. It has led to the rise in right wing politics in France, Germany, Austria, Italy and others.
The truth is that mass migration is probably the best fix for the demographic problems facing the Western World, but it is going to be a difficult sell to those sceptics and you need to explode the myths of lazy, criminal migrants plotting the downfall of their host countries. The truth is the migrants are just like you. Trying to make their way in the world as best they can, ready to work hard, and provide opportunities for their kids, there maybe some bad apples in the cart, but that is true of every population.
In the first half of the 20th Century people just like this went with nothing but the clothes on their backs, with one way tickets to New York. As they arrived they sailed past the Statue of Liberty, notably facing towards the direction from which they had come. Written on the plinth on which she stands is the verse. “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”. The people who read that went on to create the richest country the World has ever seen, where merit and hard work, rather than class, creed or colour, was the only limit to your potential. Their grandchildren voted for a child of an immigrant who promised to build a wall around the country as his number one priority. How did we get from there, to here so quickly? And do we need to go back?
Phill McCoffers – Islander September 2018