Roughly 300 people will wade into the shallow water off the coast of Libya today, moving under the cover of night and according to the shouted instructions of their smugglers. Most will have come from sub-Saharan nations like Nigeria and Eritrea, having traveled for months along a route plagued by armed gangs and predatory police for the opportunity to climb into a rubber raft and float toward a future in Europe and beyond. In 2016 and 2017, nearly 8,000 migrants drowned while attempting this dangerous Mediterranean crossing.
In his address to the United Nations General Assembly late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump stated that “the only long-term solution to the migration crisis is to help people build more hopeful futures in their home countries. Make their countries great again.” In doing so, according to Trump, the United States will focus its foreign assistance on nations that “are frankly our friends.”
That diagnosis, however, largely misses the mark. The forces driving the current wave of migration from African and other poor countries are not the hallmarks of failure, but the signs of potential success: a growing young adult population that can be a catalyst for the better future that Trump seeks at home and abroad. Foreign aid should not be a reward for loyalty to the nations most like America. It is an important tool for the United States to advance its security interests in the countries least like it, with youthful populations but not the democracies and education and health-care systems that can enable young adults to thrive and prosper. The new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, which Trump signed into law earlier this month, is a positive step. But its $60 billion in loans and equity financing will be spread across Latin America, Africa and Asia and will target the private sector, rather than investments in human capital that workers in low-income nations need to compete internationally.
Migration is most often viewed as the product of desperate circumstances. People are pushed from their homes by conflict, corruption, climate change and other factors, and pulled to the relative safety offered elsewhere. But refugees only account for one out of 10 migrants leaving Africa. Most migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, like in other waves of migrations before this one, could more properly be described as the natural byproduct of improvements in child survival rates, followed by a surge in the number of young adults.
Child mortality has fallen almost 60 percent in sub-Saharan Africa since 1990, the result of generous foreign aid initiatives and the hard work of local officials and health workers. With more children surviving across sub-Saharan Africa, many women in the region are having fewer of them, but the declines in fertility have been slow and uneven. As a result, the populations of many sub-Saharan African countries are growing faster than their still-poor economies can employ them. That is largely why the migrants leaving sub-Saharan Africa for Western nations increased sixfold between 1990 and 2013, to roughly 6 million. This trend is poised to continue. Each year for the next 10 years, 11 million young people will join the job market in sub-Saharan Africa, searching for work.
Migration is most often viewed as the product of desperate circumstances, but refugees only account for one out of 10 migrants leaving Africa.
The closest precursor to the wave of emigration happening from African nations today may be the great Irish emigration of the mid-19th century. The story of the Irish potato famine is a familiar lesson from elementary school: To escape starvation, thousands of Irish men and women left their farms for the cities and seaports of America between 1845 and 1849. But in fact, young Irish adults began putting down their hoes and moving across the Atlantic well before that. In 1821, emigration from Ireland to the United States was already occurring at a clip of roughly 13,000 people per year. The rate of migration rose to 93,000 in 1842, five years before the potato famine would temporarily double that rate.
As in many African countries today, declines in child mortality in Ireland a century and a half ago predated growth in its manufacturing sector. Ireland struggled to compete with the larger factories of England and the barriers that English industrialists erected against Irish goods. And so, Ireland remained mainly rural and poor, but the Irish were healthier than their counterparts living in the smoke-choked cities and crowded textile mills of Wales and England. A shift in farming practices toward tillage increased crop yields—yes, particularly in potatoes—and improved nutrition, but it did nothing to expand the prospects for young Irish men and women beyond dreary tenant farming. So, many emigrated. The overcrowded voyages that brought those migrants to the United States were so rife with disease and peril that they became known as coffin ships.
Two lessons emerge from the Irish and other demographic-fueled migrations in recent history. First, whether more migrants manifests as “a migration crisis” depends on the choices of policymakers. The hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants that arrived in Boston, New York and Philadelphia in the 19th century became Irish-Americans, starting businesses and building the country’s roads, canals and cities—the foundation for America’s future prosperity. A viable pathway to legal migration, lower barriers to business ownership and thoughtful employment policies can provide migrants from sub-Saharan Africa with the same chance.
Second, while profound population pressures in regions like sub-Saharan Africa will produce more migrants, the volume and pace of people moving from there depends on the ability of home countries to accommodate the aspirations and basic needs of their growing number of young adults.
Which brings us back to Trump and the other populists across Europe campaigning for protectionism and against the rates of immigration from poorer, non-Western nations. Freer trade and greater aid investments in quality education, family planning and reproductive health programs won’t stop young Africans from wanting a better life and emigrating. But they can provide some of the hundreds of migrants boarding rafts today, and tomorrow, with a reason to stay and the means to achieve that more hopeful future for their home countries. And that, as Trump suggests, could benefit everyone.
Thomas J. Bollyky is senior fellow for global health, economics and development at the Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is adapted from his book, “Plagues and the Paradox of Progress: Why the World is Getting Healthier in Worrisome Ways.” You can follow him on Twitter @TomBollyky.