An Emerging Sub-Saharan Exodus

  • August 13, 2018
  • by Lee Hockstader

How Africa has the potential to shape world demographics.

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In the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, sub-Saharan immigrants were more likely to have had some college education than the native-born population.

The staggering international migrant flows of the mid-2010s—in Europe, hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring through Turkey into Greece; in the United States, Central American families streaming over the Southwestern border to seek asylum—dominated headlines at the time.

But the ongoing press of migrants from another continent, Africa, may hold the greatest potential to transform the developed world’s long-term demographics, and pose the most profound challenges to policymakers and society for decades to come.

In Europe, as in the United States, the proliferation of African street vendors and restaurants, African mosques and churches, and African students and caregivers has continued and accelerated—a tectonic population movement whose scope and impact are projected to grow exponentially in coming decades, reshaping social and political dynamics on three continents.

Driven by conflict, instability, economic despair, and, above all, a massive demographic bulge of young people facing dim prospects at home and seeking an outlet for their energies and ambitions, African migration has accelerated at a dizzying pace since 2000.

“Africa is poised to become a major source of migrants internally and across the world,” says Mark Hugo Lopez, director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center. “The scale is different than Mexican migration, but the motives—the economic reasons and the predominance of youth in the population—was a major part of the story of Mexican migration, and perhaps also a principal driver for African migration.”

While the number of sub-Saharan African immigrants living in the United States and Europe remains dwarfed by Latino migrants in the United States, the growth in the African populations on both continents, and in the flow of people, has been enormous. At the same time, Africa’s burgeoning under-30 population and the center’s survey research, show growing numbers there who want—and intend—to leave home.

Alam Godin (in yellow), 21, waits to renew his visa at the Population and Immigration Authority office in Bnei Brak, Israel, in February. Godin fled Sudan with his family as a boy to escape war. Israel has an estimated 35,000 to 39,000 asylum seekers; most of the African migrants come from Eritrea and Sudan. 

Those numbers, and projections of quickening African migration, have impelled a series of Pew Research Center reports casting a spotlight on that story. Together the reports provide documentary evidence of a migration boom that is remaking the racial, ethnic, and cultural identities of receiving countries.

At least a million sub-Saharan African asylum-seekers, resettled refugees, students, and others arrived in the European Union, along with Norway and Switzerland, between 2010 and 2017, peaking with nearly 200,000 first-time asylum applicants in 2016, according to Pew’s analysis.

The inflow, which appears to have waned somewhat in the past year, has been accompanied by reports of desperate migrants being exploited by human traffickers, sold as slaves in Libya, clinging to flimsy rubber dinghies, and drowning by the thousands in the Mediterranean Sea.

Noting the gulf between rich EU countries with stagnant labor supplies and poor African ones with mushrooming numbers of young people, Gordon Hanson and Craig McIntosh, professors at the University of California, San Diego, likened Europe’s current immigration dynamic to that of the United States three decades ago, when unauthorized immigration from Mexico surged. “Is the Mediterranean the New Rio Grande?” they asked in a 2016 paper for the American Economic Association’s Journal of Economic Perspectives.

In the United States, about 400,000 migrants arrived from sub-Saharan Africa between 2010 and 2016, the most recent year for which figures are available. In a country where African migrants were all but invisible a few decades ago—in 1970, just 80,000 or so lived in the United States—their presence now in Texas, New York, California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, and Virginia is striking; more than 100,000 live in each of those states. And in Minnesota, which has a sizable Somalian-born community, about a fifth of the state’s roughly 457,000 immigrants are from Africa. As recently as 1990, the number of African migrants there was negligible.

Nigeria, Ghana, South Africa, and Kenya are among the principal countries of origin for sub-Saharan African migrants to Europe and the United States. Nearly 1.6 million sub-Saharan-born Africans lived in the United States in 2017—an increase of 325,000 since 2010. Most are part of an overall black immigrant population (including those from Jamaica, Haiti, and elsewhere) that numbers about 4.2 million, a fivefold increase since 1980.

Second grader Christabel Yeboah, a refugee from Ghana, in her classroom in Mecklenburg, Germany. 

A Pew Research Center report published in April, which used data from the 2015 American Community Survey as well as European sources, found that sub-Saharan migrants in the United States were more educated than those who resettled in continental Europe. (In part, that appears to reflect the fact that about a quarter of those migrants enter the United States through the diversity lottery program, eligibility for which requires at least a high school diploma.) In the United States, as well as the United Kingdom, sub-Saharan immigrants were more likely to have had some college education than the native-born population, the report found.

The higher levels of education among sub-Saharan African migrants— 69 percent of whom have some college education, relative to native-born Americans, 63 percent of whom do—was a striking finding for Monica Anderson, who co-wrote the report with fellow Pew researcher Phillip Connor. “That’s a fact that people in the United States may not know about these migrants,” she says.

The report also found that more than 90 percent of working-age sub-Saharan migrants in the U.S. and U.K. were employed, a significantly greater share than those who lived in top destination countries in continental Europe—specifically, in France, Italy, and Portugal, whose overall employment rates are also lower than in the United States. (Together, those five countries were home to more than half of sub-Saharan migrants outside of sub-Saharan Africa in 2015, according to a U.N. estimate.)

Language could be a key factor: As a 2018 Pew Research Center report notes, United Nations “data from 2015 show that most of the sub-Saharan immigrant populations in the U.S. and U.K. come from countries where English is spoken. In fact, English is the language of importance in six of the 10 biggest source countries for sub-Saharan African immigrants in the U.S. and the U.K.: Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania.”

Yet the sub-Saharan Africans crossing the Atlantic and Mediterranean are a minority of the continent’s migrants; more than two-thirds have moved to other sub-Saharan nations. though sometimes not by choice. Refugees in sub-Saharan Africa, in many cases escaping conflict and political upheaval in one nation by fleeing to another, increased by about 2.3 million between 2010 and 2016; another 9 million sub-Saharans were displaced inside their own countries in that time.

The upheaval in Africa has tended to concentrate people, and misery, in coastal areas from which migrants hope to eventually make their way to Europe. Somewhere between 400,000 and a million sub-Saharans are believed to be waylaid in Libya, the main jumping-off point for Italy in recent years. There, human rights groups and journalists have documented appalling abuses and exploitation that sub-Saharan Africans have suffered at the hands of traffickers and others, including the sale of some migrants as slaves.

sub-Saharan diaspora

The perils faced by those migrants, as well as those who risk drowning on their way to Europe, underscore the powerful forces—especially poverty and meager prospects—making them so intent on leaving home. And the Pew Research Center’s 2017 Global Attitudes Survey suggests that the surging tide of African migration to Europe and the United States in recent years could be a portent of more migration to come.

In the survey, about three-quarters of Ghanaians and Nigerians—and more than half of Kenyans and South Africans—said they would move to another country given the means and chance to do so. In Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, whose combined population is about 230 million, well over a third of those surveyed said they not only want to leave but plan on doing so in the next five years. Many of them dream of moving to Europe or the United States, where success stories of previous migrants, magnified by social media, nourish the aspirations of Africans living in countries where job markets have not kept abreast of fast-growing populations. Demographic projections suggest that the number of Africans eager to leave—which is mirrored in few other regions of the world, according to Gallup polls—is likely to grow.

According to the United Nations, the percentage of the world’s babies born in Africa is forecast to reach 32 percent in the decade and a half between 2015 and 2030, up from 27 percent between 2000 and 2015, while the share in virtually every other continent is projected to decline or remain largely unchanged. By 2030, Africa is expected to have about a quarter of the world’s under-30 population. By the 2040s, the only countries in the world with high rates of population growth are projected to be in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Mideast. And by 2050, the United Nations projects that a quarter of the people on Earth will be African.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (at left) greets high school senior Yonis Noor, a Somalian, on March 21, the city’s proclaimed Immigration Day of Action. The event showcased the city’s diversity and the contributions people from other countries make to the community. 

That poses poor prospects for countries like Nigeria, Africa’s most populous with nearly 200 million people, where some 60 percent of the population is considered poor, a quarter are unemployed, and 70 percent of the population is under 30 years old, according to a 2016 report by the U.N.’s Economic Commission for Africa.

Africans “are not sitting at home waiting for things to get better,” says Reuben Brigety, a former U.S. ambassador to the African Union who is now dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University. “In Africa, the biggest concern of leaders isn’t al-Qaida. It’s the restlessness of their youth populations, which they have no means to absorb.”

They often don’t find a welcome mat. In the United States, President Donald Trump has sought to scrap the diversity visa lottery program, which was designed to admit immigrants from under-represented countries and has been a conduit for tens of thousands of Africans who enter the U.S. legally every year.

And the response in Europe to the flood of asylum-seekers, refugees, and other migrants from Africa has been more aggressive, with some countries moving to fortify their borders, sometimes in coordination with African authorities. Italy has struck a deal with Libya’s militias and coast guard to impede Africans hoping to make the treacherous Mediterranean crossing. Spain has spent millions of euros beefing up barriers around Melilla and Ceuta, Spanish enclaves surrounded by Morocco on Africa’s northern coast, that have been rushed by African migrants hoping to breach walls and barbed wire fencing in order to reach European-controlled soil. In April, The New York Times reported that EU countries are working with authorities in Sudan, including some officials notorious for abuses and killings in Darfur, to stem the flow of Sudanese migrants to Europe.

Along with Syrian and other Middle Eastern immigrants, African migrants to Europe have helped generate a backlash in the form of rising nativism and anti-immigration nationalist political parties in Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. The resulting tensions—opposition to immigration played a key role in 2016’s Brexit vote—have exacerbated divisions among European Union countries.

In light of the trends in African migration and the political and social responses to it, the Pew Research Center plans to assess the effect of migration on origin and destination countries as well as examine the importance of technology in helping people to migrate. Lopez, who leads the project, is interested in the analogies between Mexican migration a few decades ago and African migration now. “Migrants in France who’ve moved there from Senegal, that connection echoes the Mexico-U.S. story” of well-worn migration routes across the southwestern border to Los Angeles, Chicago, and the Midwest, he says.

Adds former ambassador Brigety: “If anybody asked you 10 years ago what you thought would be the existential threat to the EU, someone would have said demographic deficit, or fiscal or monetary policy, or the threat of Russia. No one would have said it would be inward migration from African and Syrian refugees. But that’s what it is. That’s the principal reason this issue is top of the world’s radar.”

Lee Hockstader, a longtime foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, is a member of the paper’s editorial board.

Silhouetted against an evening sky, migrants saved from a Mediterranean Sea crossing arrive in southern Italy in October 2016. That was the deadliest year for African refugees crossing the Mediterranean into Europe.