Review: Demography and migration

Review: Demography and migration

Every year thousands of Africans attempt to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Author Stephen Smith argues that the youthfulness of Africa’s population is the key factor driving this demographic shift. Review by Stephen Williams.

 The first part of this book contends that Africa’s demographic profile is central to the phenomenon of Africans attempting to enter Europe. 

Author Stephen Smith is a highly respected academic and journalist, and notably served as the former Africa editor at Liberation, the progressive French daily newspaper. 

Smith highlights many of the factors that have seen millions of Africans trek to the North African coast to gamble their lives with people-traffickers in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean on rickety boats and inflatables. 

It would be simplistic to suggest that it is poverty that is driving this exodus given that many of those Africans who live in absolute poverty are unable to pay the people smugglers for their passage.

Smith theorises instead that the continent’s demographic profile offers an explanation.

Whereas Europe and the West have a rapidly growing elderly, dependent population, Africa has a much younger population.

“On a generally ‘greying’ planet,” Smith writes, “Africa is becoming the exception to the demographic rule.

Its sub-Saharan share of the global population is the most ‘youthful’ part of the world and the only region where the population will grow between 2.4 and 3% [per annum] from now until 2050.”

By that date, Africa’s population will reach 2.5bn.

Smith quotes figures that indicate that although southern Africa’s “population pyramid” is heavily impacted by the disease burden, it is still the case that fully 30% of the population is under 15 years of age.

Central Africa’s proportion of under-15s is 46% and that of West Africa is 43%. For Africa as a whole, the figure is 41%.  

That youthful population faces very limited life opportunities at home in terms of employment, educational opportunity and the ability to raise a family.

Is the grass really greener?

Thanks to new media as well as films and TV, there are tantalising glimpses of a glamorous, prosperous life in the West.

What is lost in these visions is the reality of poverty in Europe, meaning that many are motivated to make the perilous journey across the Sahara and then the Mediterranean on a false prospectus.

How many of these would-be African migrants are aware that in the UK alone, there are 4m children living in poverty?

Similar sobering statistics can be drawn from across the seemingly affluent continent.

There is another aspect of the migration phenomenon that Smith draws attention to – the dominance of the continent’s elderly leaders:

“The tension in contemporary Africa between the old and young is acute. The old are the gatekeepers of a supposedly stable but actually moribund world held in place by flagrant injustices.”

Smith writes: “In addition to everything else, the postcolonial state in Africa represents the pursuit of ‘gerontocracy’ by other means.

Nowhere else in the world is the difference between the average age of the governed and the highest office-holders as great: 43 years compared to 32 in Latin America; 30 in Asia; and 16 in Europe and North America.”

He does not say that aged leaders are necessarily bad. After all, experience can be a positive attribute.

But there are drawbacks. Smith illustrates the problems that the attitude of elders generates by describing his experience when he went to study in Berlin, in the old West Germany.

He notes that any criticism of the political reality in West Germany was met by the response:

“If you don’t like it here, then go and live on the other side of the Berlin Wall,” in the demonstrably poorer East Germany.

“For Africans today, it is the opposite,” Smith writes.

“They are surrounded by obstacles – from high fences in Ceuta and Melilla to the police states around the Mediterranean and across the Sahel, to an invisible wall of money – that Europeans have erected to prevent them leaving the continent.”

Smith quotes Reece Jones, author of the 2016 book Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move who states that in 1990, only 15 countries had built walls or wire mesh fences along their borders. By 2016, that number had jumped to 70. 

Despite this increasingly defensive stance, Smith writes:

“[In Africa] often the older ones encourage the younger ones to try their hand at this ‘adventure’.

“‘Go and live on the other side’, is more or less what they say. And young Africans go, no matter the cost, though they only have the vaguest idea of what awaits them beyond the barriers.”

Today, 510m people live in the EU (including the UK, which has signalled its departure from this union).

It is forecast that by 2050, 500m Europeans will compare with 2.5bn Africans – five times their number.

The demographics are undeniable. The scramble for Europe will become as inexorable as the “scramble for Africa” was at the end of the 19th century.

Then, it was all about raw materials and imperial competition; now it is about young Africans seeking a better life in the “Old Continent”, the home of supposed prosperity within their reach. In 30 years, Europe will include at least 150m Afro-Europeans.

“I need to dispel what would otherwise become a double misunderstanding,” the author cautions.

“No matter what, mass migration will lose neither its function as a demographic escape valve nor its immediacy for Europe, which for obvious reasons cannot ignore what is going on south of the Mediterranean.”

Follow the money

Smith then focuses on the sums of money transferred by immigrants to sub-Saharan Africa.

He quotes the World Bank, which suggests a figure of $38bn (compared with foreign direct investment flows amounting to $45bn and $25bn in official development aid).

But these official remittance flows figures are just part of the picture. They do not include informal money flows, cash carried by friends and family back to Africa.

As Smith points out, African migratory patterns have become globalised, extending well beyond the four major colonial powers – France, Great Britain, Portugal and Belgium – to encompass the whole of Europe as well as the US, Canada, China and countries of the Arab peninsula.

While remittances boost Africa, in his concluding chapter he laments the loss for Africa represented by the “large-scale exportation of its youth”.

“They are its hope for a better future and will be key to its success… when there is enough work for them to become productive and independent.”

He admits that as he wrote this engrossing study he often found himself wondering “how different Africa would be if all the energy expended to leave the continent were turned around.”


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Written by Stephen Williams

Stephen Williams is a freelance journalist, based in London. A specialist on Africa, his remit also includes the Middle East and North Africa. Williams currently works for a number of London-based print publications including New African magazine.

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