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a global crisis that cannot be avoided”

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Migration has become a problem for a growing number of countries around the world. Governments don’t seem to know how to handle this crisis, writes demographer Joseph Chamie.

Countries chosen by migrants as destinations are now experiencing record numbers of illegal arrivals on their coasts and borders. As a result, millions of men, women and children remain undocumented.

In many of these countries, public opinion regards illegal migration as a threat to national sovereignty and an attack on cultural integrity. Illegal migration also results in a financial drain on public resources.

Some politicians, like much of the population of these countries, have described the continued illegal immigration to their borders and coasts as an “invasion”, a “battleground” and a “security threat”. In some cases, the government has been called upon to “immediately return” migrants.

Public concerns about immigration are reflected in the growing influence of far-right political parties in countries such as Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Italy, Sweden and United States.

Smuggling networks also contribute to the growing crisis of illegal migration. They also generate huge profits for criminal organizations. The networks abuse migrants under the pretext of providing services such as transport, accommodation and crucial information.

Limited Achievements

Government programs and plans to combat these smuggling networks have met with limited success. International efforts to combat illegal migration, such as the Global Compact on International Migration in 2018, have also failed to curtail the refuge of illegal refugees or the activities of smugglers.

(Read more below the article.)

One of the main drivers of illegal immigration is, of course, the large and growing number of men, women and children who wish to migrate to another country at any cost, even illegally. The number of people who wish to migrate to another country is estimated at nearly 1.2 billion worldwide, or about 15% of the world’s population. This group that dreams of migrating also represents more than four times the current number of migrants in the world – 281 million in 2020.

Illegal migration

The United States is the most popular destination country with, in 2022, a total of nearly 48 million inhabitants born elsewhere, or 14% of the total number of Americans. It is estimated that a quarter of these migrants, or 11.4 million people, are staying there illegally.

The total number of migrants worldwide is known, but figures on illegal migration are only an estimate.

Twenty years ago, the number of illegal migrants was estimated at 20% of the total number of migrants. Today, that would mean there are approximately 56 million people residing illegally in the United States. If this calculation is extended to the world, we can say that there are approximately 70 million people living illegally in a country that is not their country of birth.

Right of asylum

Articles 13 and 14 respectively of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state: “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country”, and “Everyone has the right to seek and obtain asylum from persecution in other countries’.

But above all, not everyone has the right to enter or stay in another country. Entering a country illegally or staying longer than temporarily permitted are clearly not recognized human rights. In addition, to be granted asylum, a person must meet the internationally recognized definition of a refugee.

According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol, a refugee is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin because of past persecution or a well-founded fear of be persecuted in the future “because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a certain social group or political opinion”.

Difficult living conditions such as unemployment, poverty, substandard housing, lack of health care, marital discord or political unrest are not grounds for an individual to acquire internationally recognized refugee status, nor for a legitimate request for asylum.

In the absence of a universal right to migrate to another country, those who wish to do so are increasingly turning to illegal immigration. And upon arrival in the country of destination, many claim their right to seek asylum.

Once in a destination country, the legal process for an asylum claim often takes years, allowing applicants time to start a family, find work and integrate. Furthermore, many unauthorized migrants are convinced, based on the experience of millions of people before them, that the government will not repatriate them even if their asylum application is rejected, which is usually the case.


The worsening illegal immigration crisis is also compounded by an estimated 103 million people forcibly displaced worldwide by mid-2022. This number is a record and is expected to increase in the coming years.

About half of the “forcibly displaced persons” were internally displaced persons and 5% were persons in need of international protection.

Globally, the world has grown over the past two decades from 38 million to nearly 86 million forcibly displaced persons, internally displaced persons and refugees. Most of them found themselves in this situation because of extreme weather conditions: heat, floods or forest fires.

Furthermore, the number of these displaced persons is expected to increase significantly over the coming decades. Some estimates suggest that more than a billion people, mostly from less developed countries, could be displaced due to climate and civil unrest by the middle of this century.

Forces leading to migration

The global trends contributing to this growing illegal immigration crisis are obvious: demographics, poverty, smuggling networks, civil unrest and worsening climate change are powerful forces fueling illegal immigration.

These forces are so powerful that they encourage illegal migration, even that of unaccompanied children. These migrants will want to settle in a number of destination countries and will not be ready to return to their country of origin. Furthermore, most people currently residing illegally in the countries are unlikely to be repatriated.

Finally, it is also clear that neither governments nor international agencies have so far managed to put in place effective policies and programs to address the growing global migration crisis.

Joseph Chamie is an independent consultant demographer and former director of the United Nations Population Division. He wrote this analysis for IPS.

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