As it has unfolded over the past several years, the migration crisis linking Europe and Africa has revealed many facets.
At its simplest, it is one of the worst ongoing human tragedies in the world today, but one that only commands the attention of a broad public under specific circumstances. One is when it is discovered that a large number of Africans have died at sea while trying to reach Europe, whether from thirst or after their boat capsizes.
The other episodic way we learn about the fate of these desperate people is when their overloaded vessels are intercepted close to European shores, forcing a brief reckoning on that continent between contending impulses of humanitarianism and xenophobia.
Left out of these news cycles is the fact that untold hundreds, perhaps even thousands of other would-be African emigrants are dying all the time, silently, undetected and without pricking the consciences of anyone in wealthier parts of the world, whether through undiscovered disasters at sea or while attempting to cross the forbidding deserts of the Sahara. In both cases, the youths who are determined enough to attempt to flee ironclad poverty and a lack of opportunity at home regularly fall victim to criminal gangs that cynically overload their boats or trucks and stock them with the very minimum of provisions.
To be fully understood, the flight of thousands of Africans toward Europe every year, with all of the deaths that this entails, must be confronted as much more than a humanitarian matter, though. It is a crisis at once political, demographic and moral for Europe. Political and demographic because,
as Europe ages rapidly and its population craters
, it will lose much of the power, influence and, above all, wealth that it craves.
The political dimension here is that in many places, European electorates have been turning rightward and, as they have done so, becoming increasingly inwardly focused, even insular. Nationalist parties are rising strongly in a large number of countries, and in places like France, where they have been supported by the recent breakthrough of Fox News-like, far-right broadcasters
, they have elevated the question of immigration to an existential matter of national survival, in terms of both culture and racial identity.
The irony is that the bigger threat to countries like these comes from demographic decline, which is well underway, and nothing they have attempted in more than a generation of trying has bent the curve of female fertility in meaningful ways. This has included increased maternal and, more recently, paternal leave, subsidized public daycare for small children, tax breaks or outright payments of various kinds for parents who have more children, and more.
It is time for Europe to reexamine its relationship with Africa and to begin to see African prosperity as being vital to its own future.
The day is nearing when the population crunch playing out as Europe continues to age will confront the continent’s nativists and others who essentialize what it means to be European with an urgency and force they have not experienced since the immediate postwar period. And that is because making sure that young people—just what Europe increasingly lacks—enter the workforce is the only way to finance the continent’s generous social welfare and retirement systems.
By contrast, by 2040, Africa will have 1.1 billion people of working age, more than China and India, and by 2030, it will be home to 60 percent of the global population of people under 30.
This brings us to the moral aspects of this dilemma. It is time for Europeans to confront the question of whether their growing aversion to immigration isn’t really largely a matter of racism. Granted, there have been tensions recently over intra-European migration, particularly from lower-wage countries in Eastern Europe to Western Europe, but they have mainly been due to economic anxieties and have not risen to the same level of hostility shown to the young migrants from Africa. Moreover, historically, Western European countries have integrated generation after generation of Eastern European immigrants into their societies far more fully than they have Africans. Given the continent’s dismal demographic trends, are Europeans willing to risk their future prosperity on a definition of themselves and their lands as white? This is the true nature of the drama we are witnessing.
As it has unfolded, I have been unable to keep another aspect of what is going on out of mind, and that is history. When Morocco and Spain recently faced off over the flight of migrants into Ceuta
, a finger of land on the African continent long controlled by Madrid, how many Europeans paused to reflect on the fact that Ceuta was the earliest site of European imperialism on the African continent at the dawn of the modern age? This tiny peninsula was conquered by Portuguese forces led by Henry the Navigator in 1415 as part of the anti-Islamic Crusades, setting off a European scramble for Africa more than 400 years before the period we now refer to as the colonial era.
The conquest of Ceuta was followed by a drawn-out contest between Spain and Portugal for control of the Canary Islands, which Spain eventually won, but only after carrying out the first genocide of early modernity. In their efforts to control and exploit these islands, both of these rising European powers waged wars of extermination against the local inhabitants, collectively known as the Guanches, who are thought to have been related to the Imazighen, or “Berbers,” of North Africa. The Guanches who were not killed by the Europeans were deported as slaves, not only removing them from the islands but eliminating them as a people.
In the ensuing centuries, European powers large and small organized and operated the four-century-long, trans-Atlantic slave trade. This sent 12 million Africans westward into bondage in the largest involuntary migration in human history. And it was this population of enslaved people that greatly facilitated European settlement of the New World, making possible the plantation agriculture whose profits and stimulus for many complementary economic activities drove the ascension of the West over every other part of the world. This scarcely acknowledged background to European prosperity is a topic at the heart of my forthcoming book
, “Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans, and the Making of the Modern World, 1471 to the Second World War.”
Closing the period under examination with World War II was no coincidence. Europeans conscripted colonial subjects in Africa to fight and die for them in large numbers in both of their great wars of the 20th century, paying them far less than they did their own soldiers and doing little since to recognize Africa’s human sacrifice. Africa was also a theater of conflict during those wars, as well as the base for Charles de Gaulle’s Free French forces in their resistance against the Nazis. But these historical linkages and their legacies are never considered in the debates in Europe over how to respond to the current migration crisis.
It is time for Europe to reexamine its relationship with Africa and to begin to see African prosperity—and not just, say, the absence of Islamic radicalism—as being vital to its own future. If it can engineer this turnabout in attitudes, it will be able to see the migration of youth from Africa as the lifeline that it is.
Howard W. French is a career foreign correspondent and global affairs writer, and the author of four books, including most recently “Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.” You can follow him on Twitter @hofrench. His WPR column appears every Wednesday.