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Is the Mediterranean the new Río Grande?

Latin American immigration to the United States will stagnate in the coming decades, while instability in the Middle East will force hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross to Europe, researchers predict.
4 Oct 2016 – 05:22 PM EDT
Central American migrants cross the Río Grande in Mission, Texas, in 2014; another boat of refugees arrives to the coast at Lesbos, Greece, in 2016. Crédito: John Moore and Aris Messinis/Getty Images and AFP

The extensive flow of migrants from Mexico to the United States has long been one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of international migration.

Arrests on the border between the U.S. and Mexico peaked in in 2000, when almost 1.8 million migrants were arrested.

But with ongoing conflict in the Middle East, migration to Europe will likely supercede Latin American immigration to the U.S. in the coming years.

That’s according to Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh, researchers from the University of California at San Diego, who outlined the trend in a recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The researchers say things are changing on the U.S.-Mexican border: in 2015 there were 330,000 arrests, six times less than in 2000.

Researchers predict that the largest migratory flow in the world over the next three decades will occur thousands of miles from the Rio Grande. The more than 3,700 migrants who died in Mediterranean waters in 2015 could be just the beginning as the Mediterranean will likely be a hotspot of international migration until the middle of the century.

Here are some of the study’s key findings:

Río Grande
North and South America are entering a period of slow population growth and will experience a significant drop in the labor force. Forecasts indicate that the region will see its population of young people shrink in the next three decades, with the exception of Guatemala and French Guiana.

In Mexico, women had an average of 6.8 children in the 1980s, compared to three for U.S. women. At the same time, the Mexican economy suffered a long period of turbulence while its neighbor to the north enjoyed a so-called Great Moderation, when the U.S. recorded moderate economic growth from the 1980s until 2007. That means millions of migrants headed to the United States for jobs. Today, however, Mexico’s fertility rate is barely higher than the U.S. rate – 2.3 compared to 1.9.

The authors predict that in coming decades, migration to Europe will triple the number of immigrants living in Europe. They also estimate that the working-age population of sub-Saharan Africa will increase by 800 million people over the next 40 years. Meanwhile, Europe's population is growing older. Only the United Kingdom and Sweden will have more children in 2040 than they have today – thanks to immigrants.
Río Grande
Although living standards in Mexico remain below those of the United States, the economic volatility Mexico suffered in the 1980s and 90s has not spilled over dramatically into today.

One out of every three foreign workers currently in the United States is Mexican. That means 13 percent of working-age Mexicans are living in the United States.

North Africa and the Middle East will put economic and labor pressure on Europe. “They have experienced high fertility rates, creating large populations of young people who are looking for well-paying jobs in labor markets plagued by low-paying and unstable jobs,” the study says.

To the south, sub-Saharan Africa suffers from “even lower salaries,” the study says. In fact, the region has the world's lowest salaries. After months of watching migrants arrive from the Middle East, the European Union is now focusing on Africa, where its Mediterranean coastline has become a launchpad for dangerous smuggling trips to the north. In just one week in September, 3,400 migrants were rescued off the coast of Libya.

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According to the authors, Mexican migration to the United States will fall below the levels of the late 1990s unless there's a major crisis in Mexico or an exceptional economic boom in the United States. The study does not mention migrant flows from Central America, however.

Professor Gordon Hanson told Univision News that Central American countries are too small to significantly shape future migration flows, although people there will continue to migrate north. Guatemala is one of the few countries in the Americas where the number of children is expected to continue to grow, and Honduras and El Salvador are likely to continue to face political and security problems.

The most visible face of the Mediterranean migrants so far have been Syrian refugees, forced to flee a war that has been killing civilians for more than five years. But the authors say that's just the beginning of a migrant flow driven by economics, politics and demographics. “Many countries in North Africa and the Middle East are in a period of profound political and economic upheaval,” they said. They point to migrants fleeing armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria as well as migrants from Chad, Eritrea, Mali and Nigeria.
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The authors expect the United States will become an “island” in terms of migration in coming decades, because of the ocean that separates it from Europe and Africa and a restrictive migration policy. The White House and Congress increased spending on national security – including the construction of 700 miles of wall along the southern border with Mexico – by 183.6 percent between 2002 and 2010, following the Sept. 11 attacks.
In contrast, the California researchers believe the European Union currently faces serious problems along its borders. Some of the legal responsibilities for migration controls now depend on the EU, and others on individual countries along its southern edge, like Greece, Italy and Spain.

See also:
Seeking Refuge for My Children. For this special, Javier Bauluz, the first Spanish photojournalist to win a Pulitzer Prize, walked with refugees as they traveled from Greece to Germany.