The current influx of refugees from the Middle East will be dwarfed by a huge wave of Africans desperate to escape from poverty and hunger
Xenophobic rioters in Johannesburg last month: South Africa is already facing the consequences of African demographic change (©Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
The fact that well over a million asylum-seekers entered Europe last year, with even more poised to follow this year, has given Europeans an idea of the size of potential immigrant inflows that the continent now faces. But thus far most of the migrants have come from the Middle East and central Asia. Europe’s much bigger problem lies in the far greater numbers of Africans who are likely to attempt the same journey: David Cameron has given cognisance to this danger in his recent statement about a fresh wave of migrants seeking to enter Europe from Libya.
Already, of course, large numbers of North Africans, Eritreans and Somalis have been mixed among the Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan tide flowing through Turkey. This, however, is but a foretaste. The overwhelming majority of these Africans on the move are economic migrants, and the spread of modern media, bringing with it images of the immensely higher standard of living available in Europe, is propelling ever larger numbers into motion.
This is partly just a matter of size. Africa — whose size is artificially minimised on maps by the Mercator projection — is so huge that one could fit Eastern and Western Europe, China, Japan, India, New Zealand and the USA into its enormous land mass. But it is also because, at a time when population growth has slowed or gone negative in most of the developed world, Africa is still experiencing a demographic explosion.
Historically, disease kept Africa’s population low and life expectancy down to 25 or less. The huge mortality rate meant that in the interests of societal survival girls had to have children at puberty and as many as possible thereafter. The economic historian Patrick Manning estimates that there were 99.9 million Africans in 1790 and only 96.9 million in 1900. But the coming of Western medicine had a dramatic effect: Africa’s population is now more than 1 billion. Moreover, between 1961 and 2011 life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa increased from 40.5 years to 54.7. One result is more older men having children with younger wives — South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is a perfect example: he has more than 20 children with multiple women and is still taking new wives in his seventies.
When the world’s population passed 7 billion on March 12, 2012 (according to the US Census Bureau) Africans made up 14.3 per cent of the total, but by 2040, when the world’s population will have reached 8.1 billion, Africans will make up 1.87 billion (23.1 per cent) of the total. The drama lies in the 870 million more Africans the continent will add by then.
African family size is shrinking everywhere but from such high levels that even the reducing figure produces explosive growth. Thus the Africa Survey 2015-16 produced by Good Governance Africa shows that between 1975 and 2013 the fertility rate — live births per woman — had fallen from 7.1 to 5.9 in Uganda; from 6.7 to 6.0 in Nigeria; from 6.8 to 5.2 in Tanzania; from 6.4 to 5.9 in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and from 7.8 to 4.4 in Kenya. As can be seen, when women on average have four or five children, a population doubles in a generation or less. Only in Algeria and South Africa — the two African countries which had the largest white settlements — has family size reduced to close to replacement level. But South Africa’s population is growing quite quickly because it too is a magnet for African migrants — a fact which has triggered repeated and bloody xenophobic riots.
By 2040 the results will be dramatic. The higher birth rate in East Africa and Nigeria will see these countries loom much larger on the continent. Thus whereas in 2010 South Africa’s population was a third of the size of Nigeria’s, by 2040 it will only be one sixth. One result will be the rise of mega-cities with more than 20 million people each — Lagos, Kinshasa and Cairo, with Khartoum and Luanda both around 10 million. Most of these cities will be made up of shacks. Perhaps most striking of all is the fact that by then Africa will have more than 1.1 billion people of working age, the single biggest group in the world’s working-age population. This group of workers will not only be far bigger than India’s or China’s, but three times the size of Europe’s working-age population, and five times the size of North America’s.
The big question is whether Africa’s already fragile states can cope with this huge population bulge. Can they provide the schools, the hospitals and, above all, the necessary jobs? More basic still is food. According to the World Soil Resources Report produced by the Food and Agricultural Organization, more than 60 per cent of the world’s potential arable land which remains to be brought into productive use lies in Africa. For it to feed all these extra people it will need to be turned over to commercial farming instead of today’s subsistence.
That is highly problematic. The only two African countries where commercial farms produced a healthy food surplus were, until recently, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Mugabe has destroyed Zimbabwe’s commercial farms and South Africa has been taking much farmland out of commercial use and turning it over to subsistence. If Africa is not to face continual famines, such policies need to be reversed everywhere. Such a change is bound to meet strong social and political resistance.
According to the UN’s Department of Social and Economic Affairs Population Division, the world’s total population is expected to peak around 2100 at 11 billion, so the world as a whole will need a lot more food by then. Today Africa’s famines are provisioned with surplus food from elsewhere but that surplus may not exist then. It is little comfort to know that the UN expects the world’s population then to shrink rapidly so that by 2150 the world will have only half the number of people that it does now. What matters is getting through the huge bulge before that.
The greatest challenge will lie in unemployment — already high throughout Africa. Most of Africa’s recent growth has come through the exploitation of natural resources. Not only is there no intensive agriculture but there is also very little manufacturing industry anywhere on the continent. As things stand the hundreds of millions of new would-be workers will face a desperate future. Not only is this likely to produce a huge migratory movement to greener pastures but it is also likely to create civil disorder. The German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn argues that most wars and genocides have been generated by a youth bulge in which there are simply too many young men with too much testosterone and no real place for them. It is, he says, “the problem of the third and fourth sons”. This challenge could easily overwhelm Africa’s fragile states and create chaotic or violent scenarios in which emigration will seem the only alternative.
The result will be a challenge that Europe will not wish to meet. It is simply impractical to imagine that scores or even hundreds of millions of young Africans can be decanted into Europe. Partly this is for cultural reasons: most of the would-be migrants will be unskilled, out of place in Europe’s increasingly high-tech societies, and many of them will be Muslims. However politically incorrect it may be to say so, there is no doubting the European resistance to “Islamisation”. But most of all it is just a question of numbers. Even last year’s inflow has left many Europeans protesting that they cannot accept so many newcomers. Yet despite the fuss made over the present migrant flow, it is merely a trickle compared to the coming tsunami.
What this means is that the present debates about how to maintain Europe’s (relatively) open borders really belong to the past. There is simply no doubt that we are looking at a “Fortress Europe” future of high fences, walls and stringent admission controls. And, as can already be seen from David Cameron’s response to the inflow from Libya, it is likely to imply a scenario in which migrant boats are simply turned back, in the same way that Australia prevents illegal (Muslim) immigration from Indonesia. Meanwhile, because Muslim family size is consistently higher than among other groups, we are looking at a world in which 30 per cent of the entire population will soon be Muslims, concentrated among the planet’s poorer populations. One can descry a possible future in which large numbers of these poorer Muslims will beat against the closed gates allowing entry to the richer and predominantly non-Muslim developed world. The result could be a true “clash of civilisations”. The pressures exerted by demographic growth and the increasing availability of information and pictures of the much higher living standards in the developed world (where populations are not increasing) will unleash a huge migratory potential. And nowhere will that potential be greater than in Africa.
If such a scenario is to be avoided African countries need to experience rapid economic growth and markedly better governance. Bad governance is clearly the limiting factor. In well- governed states like Botswana and Mauritius living standards are rising rapidly and wealth is reasonably spread. In the poorly governed states — the vast majority — growth is weaker and all the benefits go to a tiny elite. It is thus purely a matter of self-interest, and not just philanthropy, that Europe should do all it can to foster higher growth and better governance in Africa.
If nothing is done the worst-case scenario is that one African state after another will collapse under the weight of demographic pressures, mass unemployment, climate change and civil strife, creating a human tragedy on an enormous scale. Even under the best-case scenario, the migratory wave towards Europe is likely to dwarf anything seen from the Middle East. African and Arab nationalism have failed to produce a better life for their supporters, but in an increasingly globalised world people can easily see the better life available elsewhere and are far more likely to move in order to get it. For most of recorded history Europe was able to regard what happened in Africa with some detachment. That detachment, already under strain, will soon vanish altogether.