While the European population is getting older due to falling birth rates and people living for longer, Africa is getting younger and younger each day. In 1980 the African continent had 477 million inhabitants, today, according to United Nations estimates, it has more than 1.2 billion. In 2050 Africa will contribute 54% of the increase in global population growth, with an army of youngsters that will exceed that of India and China. In 2100 it will reach 82% with Nigeria near the top of the list of the world’s most populous countries. Over the last ten years or so, just as climate change has been driving mammals and birds in this part of the world to emigrate in search of food and less hostile temperatures, at the same time and for reasons that are not wholly dissimilar, people too have been on the move. Sometimes they remain in their own continent but move to different regions, others head further afield. Images of immigrant landings in Lampedusa and lifeless bodies floating in the Mediterranean Sea have managed to make the front pages of newspapers all over the world, confirming the perception of desperate people willing to do anything to leave their countries. But these also feed a misleading narrative: that migration is always a problem both for the country of arrival and for the country of origin.

“I grew up with the idea of Europe, and it was the same for many of my friends who are now also in Italy,” explains Jacques, a twenty-year-old from Ivory Coast, who in order to fulfil his childhood dream left his village thirty kilometres from Yamoussoukro and travelled until he reached Naples where he requested asylum. In Jacques’ imagination Europe was the Promised Land, a place where everything was possible in spite of the difficulties. Jacques was not escaping war, however: bombs are not the only reason why people might be forced to flee their countries. Jacques’ story is an emblematic one, of arguments between rival families, retaliation, disputes over the division of land and even death threats. A story tinged with tribal beliefs that forced him to flee. A link does exists between the growing populations and migration and it concerns access to resources and employment and sometimes even war. “The rapid population growth and climate change in recent years has generated economic difficulties and a high rate of youth unemployment, therefore, life in some parts of Africa has become really hard. When the young people emigrate, in some way they alleviate the demographic pressure on their community,” comments William Ryerson, director of the non-profit organisation Population Media Centre. According to Ryerson, the pessimistic forecasts concerning global warming and the constant increase in population, which will see the number of Africans double in thirty years, will continue to have a long term effect on migration flows towards Europe. “Sub-Saharan Africa has experienced growth in recent years, especially in the sectors of oil and mining, two sectors that, unfortunately do not generate high levels of employment.” The majority of young people only manage to find work in the irregular economy but usually this is little more than a way to survive.

“More and more people need work but there is not enough to go around, ” explains Giovanni Andrea Cornia, Professor of Economics and Development at the University of Florence. Most economies in Sub-Saharan Africa are based on agriculture. While in some countries there is still arable land available, in others, such as Burundi or Rwanda there is not sufficient land to meet everyone’s requirements. If we then also factor in natural disasters such as droughts that make farming unproductive, young people are forced to move to the city, where due to the lack of a serious industrial plan, they end up being sucked into the irregular economy. “And they work in deplorable conditions, for less than two dollars a day, without being able to feed themselves or their families,” adds Ryerson. For many of them, therefore, there is little choice but to try their luck elsewhere.

“In Africa in recent years much progress has been made, especially concerning infant mortality,” continues Cornia, “but what has not occurred is the demographic transition by which the fall in infant mortality leads also to a fall in the birth rate and consequently a stabilization of population growth.” This passage, at least for the moment has failed to occur particularly in the countries in the centre and the east of the continent. Rapid and uncontrolled demographic growth, however, is an alarm bell for problems that are difficult to eradicate, many of them relating to female emancipation. Not surprisingly, where there are higher levels of literacy among women, the birth rate is lower. The higher the population growth rate, the more widespread the phenomenon of child marriage. Nigeria is a case in point. The extremely low levels of education amongst girls almost always leads to child marriages, denounced in the latest report by Oxfam on inequality in the country, with frequent underage pregnancies and significant consequences on the health of the young mothers. “The child brides rarely complete secondary school and tend to have very numerous families, they do not know about contraception methods,” explains Ryerson. It is a vicious circle in which ignorance and misery is perpetuated. In the most degraded areas many women think that contraception is harmful to their health, some just obey the what their their husbands tell them, for others it’s just a question of fatalism: God alone decides how many children you will have, man can do nothing about it. The Population Media Centre intervenes in this context, designing awareness raising programmes that use entertainment to get the message across about important issues such as women’s health. In Sierra Leone the organisation has broadcast on the radio 208 episodes of a light-hearted series entitled Saliwansai. After two years of transmissions, the result is that numerous women have come to the gynaecology clinics to enrol in family planning projects. “Almost all of them were informed by Saliwansai and we have achieved similar results in many other countries,” concludes Ryerson. With birth rates of up to four times higher than those in the majority of European countries in the last thirty years, populations have almost doubled in the main countries of origin for migrants. Migrations profoundly change the structure of a society, also the country of origin. For as many people that depart in search of a better life, many others remain where they are and can benefit from the work of those who leave. The International Fund for Agricultural Development wrote that in 2015 migrants sent 450 billion dollars back to developing countries in remittances – the money sent home to relatives. This figure is three times the overall total received in development aid. While in Africa development aid is diminishing, the flows of remittances are increasing and, according to a dossier by the United Nations Conference on trade and development, the main beneficiaries are Nigeria, Egypt, Senegal, Morocco and Ghana. “750 million people survive also thanks to the work of migrants,” explains Ryersen, “but to compensate the loss of human capital due to migration, it is necessary that the money from remittances is invested in the education of children in order to ensure countries a more stable and less poor future.”

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