Elon Musk overlooks the continent of his birth when he warns of a pending population bust. 

Africa’s population is exploding and will double to over two billion by 2050. Africa is where population is growing fastest. Billionaire entrepreneurs Strive Masiyiwa and Patrice Motsepe are right being alarmed by the continent’s failure to provide enough jobs for this burgeoning population.

Numbers tell the story. The African Development Bank says while 10 to 12 million Africans enter the work force each year, only three million jobs are being created for them. What happens to the nine million each year who don’t find work?

Zimbabwean Masiyiwa – who spends millions educating and training Africans – says if people can find the means, they leave. Because of this Masiyiwa is convinced illegal crossings of the Mediterranean will escalate in the years ahead. At Davos in 2019 he went so far as to joke that if the European Union was serious about keeping African migrants away they’d have to build a wall in the Mediterranean.

Data shows that in 2021 about 200 000 migrants illegally entered the European Union. Some 114 000 of these, according to the United Nations, risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean by boat. Another 3 000 prospective asylum seekers are said to have died making the crossing. So far in 2022, says the EU, a further 700 migrants have been lost at sea. Migration numbers are up 50% over previous years.

In line with Masiyiwa’s predictions, 75% of those arriving in Europe are young men between the ages of 15 and 39. Most are refugees desperate for jobs and a better life. Most want to reach Germany or Britain, which absorb about half of all migrants. Despite Britain no longer being in the EU, this year 25 000 migrants have managed to cross the English Channel into Britain. UK authorities see no sign that the migrant surge is peaking. On a single day, 22 August, they say a record 1 300 migrants in 27 boats arrived in Britain.

Asylum and residency

There are at least five million unauthorized/undocumented migrants in the EU. Most will find work and be allowed to stay but each of the 27 EU countries has its own rules for asylum and residency. The EU this year has been particularly generous to the 6.5 million who have fled the war in Ukraine. And in 2015, following the civil war in Syria, Germany alone welcomed over one million refugees.

The situation in the United States is both similar and different. First a clarifying note on terms. Technically a migrant is a person who doesn’t intend to remain in the destination country. He or she is probably an economic migrant drawn to the high-income country by the promise of better pay. An immigrant, the term used generically in the US, is a person hoping to stay and start a new life in the receiving country. Most refugees are in this category.

The United States is hosting an estimated 15 million people who entered the country illegally. Over the past 12 months a record two million people – from dozens of countries – have entered the US without permission. The US also accepts over one million legal immigrants each year.

Determined to reverse the aggressive immigration policies of the Trump administration, President Biden is pursuing what he calls a more humane approach. The long US border with Mexico is essentially open to those who survive the journey across the Mexican desert. Turning themselves in to border authorities, most asylum seekers are given dates far in the future for immigration hearings and then released into the United States. A majority of illegal border crossers are Spanish-speakers from Mexico and Central America but many of the newest arrivals come from Venezuela and Cuba. 

The border trade in migrants on the Mexican side is typically run by criminal gangs who charge as much as $7 000 for the 1 700-mile journey from Central America. Most border crossers are economic migrants drawn by the 14-to-1 gap in wages between Central American countries and the US. Central America’s population is 29 million. An estimated 15% to 20% of El Salvador’s population resides in the US.

Sanctuary cities

Migrants arriving in the dozens of self-proclaimed sanctuary cities are generally protected against deportation. California and New York offer generous benefits, allowing migrants access to healthcare and education and issuing identification cards that can be used to obtain driver’s licences. In both states, illegal immigrants are allowed to vote in municipal and state elections.

But the loose Biden border policy is controversial even among fellow Democrats. Texas Democratic congressman Vincent Gonzalez complains that Biden policies ‘incentivises droves of people to come’.

And what about South Africa, whose higher-wage industrial economy is a magnet for the poor and desperate in neighbouring states?

South Africa hosts three million immigrants, the largest number anywhere in Africa. More than 800 000 of these migrants arrived during the five-year period ending in 2021.  Twenty-four percent of the total, or 690 000, are from Zimbabwe, followed by Mozambique.

But unlike Europe and the US, South Africa is failing to provide jobs even to its own people. Per capita incomes in South Africa fall as population gains exceed economic growth. With an unemployment rate greater than 30% it is hardly surprising that there is popular anger directed at immigrants. The story is much the same in Nigeria, the continent’s largest economy where unemployment exceeds 25%.

‘Six years’

Regrettably, there’s not much hope for improvement. During Covid, South Africa shed 1.4 million jobs. ‘Putting that number in perspective,’ says a World Bank report, ‘it took the country six years to add 1.4 million jobs to its pre-pandemic economy.’ 

The outlook is grim. Mining magnate Patrice Motsepe says South Africa needs to create 500 000 jobs each year just to hold its own. As readers know, that’s not happening.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend


Washington writer Barry D. Wood for two decades was chief economics correspondent at Voice of America News, reporting from 25 G7/8, G20 summits. He is the Washington correspondent of RTHK, Hong Kong radio. Wood's earliest reporting included covering key events in South and southern Africa, among them the Portuguese withdrawal from Mozambique and Angola and the Soweto uprising in the mid-1970s. He is the author of the book Exploring New Europe, A Bicycle Journey, based his travels – by bicycle – through 14 countries of the former Soviet bloc after the fall of Russian communism. Read more of his work at econbarry.com. Watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07OIjoanVGg