The founding-hero of Athens, Theseus, lends his name to a famous thought experiment. The ship on which he sailed to Crete to slay the Minotaur and thus put an end to the sacrifice, every seventh year, of the seven most courageous boys and the seven most beautiful maidens of Athens was preserved in a museum in his home town. As time went by, the rotten wood was replaced to keep the vessel seaworthy. With virtually all of its parts renewed, was it still the same ship? Surely, the vessels – the original and the overhauled – were not identical. But even if, miraculously, the original ship could have been protected from any decay, it would not have been the same Theseus sailed on. Such is the ambivalent essence of history, as pointed out by Heraclitus: “We both step and do not step into the same rivers. We are and are not the same” because “everything flows”, panta rhei. Embedded in time, the measure of change, identity remains… elusive.
Will Europe still be Europe tomorrow? The question has come to obsess European politics since 2015, when 1.256 million people – mostly refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan but also about 300,000 Africans – entered the continent by land or by sea. Yet the 2015 influx will pale by comparison with the sustained migratory flows that are bound to originate from Africa as soon as Europe’s neighbour will have crossed a first threshold of prosperity, beyond subsistence. When exactly this will occur, and what precise numbers will be involved, is impossible to predict as too many unknown variables enter into the equation. But historical precedents point to a tall order of magnitude. For instance, if Africa followed the example of the Mexican migration to the United States between 1975 and 2014 (since then, net migration from Mexico to the US has been negative, pace Donald Trump), Europe’s population would include by the middle of this century some 150 million African-Europeans – counting immigrants and their children – compared with just nine million, today.
Africa’s coming mass migration will be the upshot of two sets of interlocking reasons: historically unparalleled demographic growth, namely south of the Sahara, and the resulting youthfulness of the population that will further exacerbate intergenerational tensions in a part of the world where “the principle of seniority” – the premium of prestige and power awarded, ipso facto, to the elderly, especially to men – is one of the bedrock principles of sociality; and surging outward migration as soon as the disaffected African youth can acquire the necessary means to seek their fortune elsewhere, away from gerontocracy and stunted life chances.
Africa’s demographic growth resembles the gambling strategy, known as martingale, of continually doubling the stakes: since the 1930s, when the continent had roughly 150 million inhabitants, it has risen to 300 million in 1960, and to 600 million another thirty years later, in 1990, after the end of the Cold War. Today, Africa has 1.3 billion inhabitants. The median projection for 2050 – with little room for uncertainty as the parents of those who will be born are already among us – puts its population at 2.4 billion. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the European Union has 510 million inhabitants and is expected to have 480 million by 2050. Then, there will be five Africans – among them two minors – for every average European in their early 50s.
The youthfulness of Africa’s population is crucial for the migratory challenge. 40% of the continent’s inhabitants are under the age of 15. In Italy, the proportion of the under-15 is 13.6%. Hyper-rapid urbanization further increases the youthful population age structure in Africa as those leaving their village for a town as part of the “rural exodus» are overwhelmingly young: in London, Paris and Berlin, the age category under 15 represents, respectively, 18%, 16% and 13.5% of the population; in Lagos, with over 21 million inhabitants Africa’s biggest “megacity», they are more than 60%. This numerical mismatch between young and old is the main driver of a massive uprooting. In the absence of elderly mentors and role models, “young Africans» – almost a pleonasm… – escape the traditional value systems through the satellite dish or the Internet; their “elsewhere» begins long before they actually set out for it: a nearby town, a national or regional capital in a better-off neighbouring country, and eventually Europe, America, China or the Arab Peninsula.
Currently, seven out of every ten African migrants stay on their continent, moving only from their country of birth to a more prosperous state. However, thirty years ago, nine out of ten stayed in Africa. And while the proportion of outward migration steadily increases, Africa’s population will rise from 1.3 to 2.4 billion over the next thirty years. In Togo, one adult in three entered the US Government lottery for a residence permit – even though the “visa lottery” offers just 50,000 green cards per year worldwide to “diversity candidates” from countries with low immigration rates to the United States. In neighbouring Ghana, 6% of the population applied for the program in a single year, 2015, when that proportion was even surpassed in Liberia (8%), Sierra Leone (8%) and the Republic of Congo (10%). Across the continent, according to consistent polling data, 40% of Africans aged 15 to 24 said they would emigrate, if they had the means.
Notwithstanding a popular myth in Europe, it is not the “poorest of the poor” who escape “hell” in Africa to reach the European “paradise”. It is the emerging African middle class. Depending on the point of departure south of the Sahara, you need around 3,000 US dollars to get on your way – that is more than the yearly per capita income in most countries. Today, at least 150 million African consumers have disposable income equal to anywhere from 5 to 20 US dollars per day. Not far behind are another 200 million people with a per diem income of 2 to 5 dollars. Africa’s middle class is expected to quadruple over the next twenty years. In other words: if, as one would hope, Africa crosses the threshold of minimal prosperity, the optimistic leitmotiv of “Africa Rising” will become, quite literally, a reality for Europe.
Demographic changes take place too slowly to be noticed in the day-to-day until that point of inflection when they are suddenly blindingly obvious. In fact, the “Africanisation of Europe” has been underway for quite some time. In the 1920s, only 3,500 sub-Saharan immigrants lived in France, then the continent’s major colonial metropole; they were about 15,000 in the 1950s and 65,000 in the mid-1970s. Today, 1.5 million sub-Saharan immigrants live in France, plus three times more North Africans. All in all, close to 10% of the French population are either first or second-generation immigrants from Africa.
Is France still France? Though migration owes much to duress, it is also an opportunity for self-reinvention. All depends on how wilful this transformative process actually is, both on the part of the migrants and their hosts. If Africans come to Europe to live there as Europeans and not as “diasporic communities”, and if Europeans welcome them as fellow citizens and not as “retirement fodder” or the “wretched refuse of teeming shores”, then the ship of Theseus will be smooth sailing: Africa will remain in Africa, and Europe will still be Europe.
Cover photo by Marco Gualazzini, Africa, Somalia, Mogadishu, 2015