Countries With The Biggest Population Decline

By Victoria Simpson on September 14 2020 in Society

Image credit: Varavin88/Shutterstock
  • Lebanon, Cook Islands, American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Saint Pierre and Miquelon top the list as countries with the biggest population decline.
  • US territories can have trouble maintaining their populations as many face high poverty rates, and intense natural disasters but do not receive enough government funding.
  • War can cause countries to face economic and political troubles decades after it ends.

We usually think of our planet as bursting at the seams with people. By 2100, experts predict Earth’s population will peak at a tremendous 11 billion souls, packing some cities and countries with more individuals than is possible to really handle. In spite of this, some locations are actually still struggling to keep people living within their borders. Citizens are leaving and migrating out to greener pastures, causing the population to creep downwards faster than it can be replaced. 

In recent times, places that are home to a lot of war, such as Syria, topped the list of countries with declining populations. Now, the scene is slightly different.  From low fertility rates to few job prospects and natural disasters, the list of reasons people leave their home country to find a new one is changing, as are the countries grappling with this problem. Here are the top five countries with the biggest population declines in 2020. 

Beirut, Lebanon experienced an explosion in August 2020 that wreaked havoc on the city and revealed the extent of the lack of solid leadership in the country. Image credit: Hiba Al Kallas/Shutterstock

Lebanon: -6.68%

Lebanon has an ongoing history of conflict. People in this country experienced a long civil war that lasted from about 1975 to 1990, and this has left its mark. It wasn’t until 2019 that the nation’s first labor force study was completed since the war, and it revealed some reasons why Lebanese people may be leaving. 

Unemployment was discovered to be running at about 11.4% and this is without including refugee camps in the country. Political strife and instability still cause many Lebanese people to seek out a safer life elsewhere. Examples of the country’s lack of solid leadership include the fact that in 2020, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were accidentally detonated in a port in Beirut, killing 190 people. This also left thousands homeless and destroyed buildings for miles around. 

What else is contributing to a decreasing population? Women in the country are also having fewer babies than the average global fertility rate (2.087 compared with 2.5 on average, around the world). 

Polynesian dancers on the Cook Islands. Image credit: ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock

Cook Islands: -2.59%  

The population of the Cook Islands, which is tiny, between 17,000 and 18,000 people, has been declining for a number of years. Simply put, many people living there are looking for a better economic future, and often have to leave to find it. Most who immigrate end up migrating to New Zealand. In fact, more Cook Islanders now live in New Zealand than in their home country. 

Those who do stay in the country often make a living exporting pearls, fishing, working in agriculture, or by having a career in offshore financing. So many are leaving that in 2018, prime minister Henry Puna promised to pay mothers baby bonuses of $770 for each child born on the islands in order to combat population decline. 

Puerto Rico is a scenic island, but it has experienced a lot of difficulties related to poverty and natural disasters. Image credit: Martin Wheeler III/Shutterstock

Puerto Rico: -1.59%

Poverty and natural disasters are the main reasons people are migrating from Puerto Rico. The poverty rate in Puerto Rico, which is an American territory, was 43.1% in 2018. This is considerably higher than that of the mainland US, which sat at about 13% at that time. 

Since Puerto Ricans can readily immigrate to the continental US (and can only vote for a president if they do so), many choose to make the leap. Hurricanes Maria and Irma have also forced many people in Puerto Rico to leave following the destruction they caused in 2017. 

American Samoa is an American territory in the Pacific Ocean that has been experiencing a population decline as residents leave to find better lives elsewhere. Image credit: Peto Laszlo/Shutterstock

American Samoa: -1.4%

Another territory of the US, American Samoa, is one experiencing declining numbers as people seek a better economic future. This territory is stuck in a difficult spot. Unlike other US territories, it does not have a strong tourist industry. And when federal funds and grants, which represent a big portion of the country’s government revenues and are based on the size of the population, decrease, it starts a self-fulfilling economic loop downwards. Without a change to the support it gets, American Samoa will likely continue to see a decreasing population in the future. 

Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a small French territory off Canada's coast, and despite a high life expectancy, its size means residents frequently leave. Image credit: Henryk Sadura

Saint Pierre and Miquelon: -1.15%

An island governed by France but located just off the coast of Canada near Newfoundland and Labrador, Saint Pierre and Miquelon is charming, yet has its share of troubles. It has a tiny population of about 6,000 people, the majority of whom are employed in fish processing. Besides this industry and a few people working in tourism, jobs can be hard to come by. A low fertility rate of 1.57 children born for every woman in 2018 also contributes to a shrinking population. 

This being said, life expectancy is high in Saint Pierre and Miquelon and citizens enjoy universal healthcare, as well as a free education through high school. 

Common Causes of Population Decline

Many factors can cause a country to have a shrinking populace. War, political unrest, and racial or ethnic persecution can be major drivers that cause people to migrate in search of a better life. Economic instability, which can often accompany violent conflict, can also be a major cause of migration. Countries from which many young people migrate experience aging populations that do not replenish themselves at a rate high enough to grow or remain stable. When this happens, the population declines over time. 

Where people live on Earth is always in flux. What was once an agricultural area becomes a new suburb, and what were once thriving cities can be reduced to rubble in war, or be abandoned over time, due to economic decline. As economic and political opportunities move around the globe in response to our needs and wants as humans, people will continue to migrate, and populations will continue to change. 

Countries With The Biggest Population Decline

RankCountry2020 Population Decline estimate (%)
1Lebanon-6.68
2Cook Islands-2.59
3Puerto Rico-1.59
4American Samoa-1.4
5Saint Pierre And Miquelon-1.15
6Lithuania-1.13
7Latvia-1.12
8Moldova-1.08
9Bulgaria-0.65
10Estonia-0.65
11Federated States of Micronesia-0.6
12Northern Mariana Islands-0.55
13Croatia-0.5
14Serbia-0.47
15Montenegro-0.37
16Romania-0.37
17Virgin Islands-0.37
18Greece-0.31
19Armenia-0.3
20Trinidad and Tobago-0.3
21Hungary-0.28
22Belarus-0.27
23Japan-0.27
24Portugal-0.25
25Saint Barthelemy-0.25

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