LONDON (Reuters) - Rich nations need migrant workers to provide and care for their rapidly aging populations, experts said this week, challenging a wave of hostility toward new arrivals driven by the impact of the economic downturn.
Immigration was a recurring theme of a two-day conference at London's Chatham House on managing graying economies, with speakers from the United States, Europe and Japan all in favor, despite the social tensions it can cause.
In Europe, for one, antipathy toward foreign workers and asylum seekers has grown in the last few years because of their perceived pressure on scarce jobs and public services.
An influx of immigrants from north Africa this year triggered by upheavals in the region has added to the tension and prompted plans to temporarily restore border controls, eliminated between most EU states under the Schengen treaty.
The experts said turning away young migrants would be short-sighted as their taxes support an increasing number of pensioners in developed countries who are living longer.
"You take young migrants who were educated abroad and they are generally net contributors to public finances," said Philippe Legrain, a senior policy analyst at the European Union's executive arm.
Fertility rates in the European Union remain too low to secure future pensions for all EU citizens, a European Commission demographics report showed last month.
Such trends, combined with record budget deficits, have already forced governments across Europe to raise retirement ages despite widespread protests, and many countries, including the United States, are eyeing pension reforms.
Without such reforms, by 2060 the number of people in work for every retired person in the EU is expected to drop from the current level of four to just two, a 2010 report by the European Commission found.
"(A) priority is attracting more migrant workers to improve the dependency ratio, help provide social services and boost economic growth," Legrain told the conference, entitled "Transforming aging economies."
Other speakers echoed that view, although some observers impact on economic growth was negligible.
The arrival of migrants from 10 eastern European countries which joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 has boosted Britain's output by only 0.95 percent, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, a think-tank, estimated earlier this month.
But Legrain, the author of "Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them," said demand for migrants would grow because many of them work in health and social care.
"The fastest-growing area of job growth in Europe is not in high tech but in care for the elderly," he said.
Laszlo Andor, a member of the European Commission, said migrants from outside the EU accounted for the bulk of population growth in the bloc.
"Migration remains an important source to rejuvenate the age profile of the European work force and can help bridge anticipated overall labor shortages in the long run," he said.
The European Union was expected to lack between 384,000 and 700,000 IT workers by 2015 and between 1 million and 2 million health professionals by 2020. "It is highly unlikely that all these resources would be found within the union," Andor said.
Nicholas Eberstadt, a political economy researcher at the American Enterprise Institute, noted immigration brought with it difficulties, such as problems integrating into host societies.
"Immigration can be part of the solution but I think a rather limited part of the solution," he told the conference.
Legrain noted that migrants' contribution might be limited at first but said it grew over time, citing the examples of Google, EBay, Tesco, EasyJet and Marks and Spencer which were all founded by immigrants or their children.
Referring to the co-founder of Google, he asked: "How many Sergey Brins does Europe turn away and at what cost?"
Editing by Philippa Fletcher