Stephen Smith : Mass Migration Has Not Yet Begun

Stephen Smith : «La migration de masse n’a pas encore eu lieu» FIGARO/INTERVIEW, 6th July 2018. According to the American journalist Stephen Smith, migration from Africa, which weighs so heavily on Europe, constitutes the grand challenge of the 21st century. He says that the scale of the migratory pressure will submit our Continent to a trial without precedent, leading to the final rupture between the cosmopolitan elite and the populations who are attached to their identity.


The French-speaking American journalist, Stephen Smith, directed reporting on Africa at Libération from 1988 to 2000, then at Le Monde from 2000 to 2005. Since 2007, he has been professor of African studies at Duke University in the United States. He has just published La Ruée vers l’Europe [The Stampede for Europe], Editions Grasset .

FIGARO : How would you identify today’s migrants?

Stephen Smith : Paradoxically, the majority of migrants are coming from countries that carry the hopes of Africa, such as Senegal, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Kenya. The rest are from countries that are either openly at war or are true dictatorships, like South Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. It is the “emergent states of Africa” that experience emigration, not the “Africa of wretchedness”. These emigrants are able to raise the fortune needed to do so, €2,000 – €3,000: being the average yearly income in many sub-Saharan countries. They leave in the quest for a better life for themselves and their children. On the other hand, those who spend all day making ends meet have neither the time to learn how the world works, nor the means to participate in it. And so Africa loses its vital strength, as the most dynamic of its young people, some with qualifications, take off. It’s a nett loss. Even if they remit money to their countries of origin, as members of a middle class they are irreplaceable. And this is bad for democracy. A country can’t develop while exporting its elite.

FIGARO : What are the causes of this exodus?

Stephen Smith : Eventually, demographic pressure ends up as migratory pressure. For almost a century, Africa has experienced the most rapid population growth in the history of humanity. The continent has gone from about 150 million inhabitants in the 1930s to 1.3 billion today, and will reach 2.5 billion by 2050, compared with 450 million Europeans — being 50 million fewer than today, as Europe ages and depopulates. Africa, by contrast, never ceases to become younger: by mid-century, one quarter of the world’s projected population of 10 billion people, will be African. They will represent the youth of a world that, between now and then, will grow old everywhere else, including Asia and Latin America. Already today, 40% of African people are under 15 years of age! And, between now and 2100, three in every four babies born anywhere in the world will be born south of the Sahara.

Yet not all of these young people are finding opportunities at home, particularly in the matter of employment. First of all, they leave the villages for the towns, then for the large regional centres, such as Abidjan, Lagos and Johannesburg. This rural exodus and consequent hyper-rapid urbanisation simply follows economic logic. Two thirds of African city-dwellers live in shanty-towns. But these young people leave their villages in order to free themselves from the supervision of elders who rule them by virtue of the “right of seniority”. They search for freedom and adventure: first in the towns, then in the mega-cities like Lagos, with more than 20 million inhabitants, and finally in Europe. It’s like the cascade of a huge migratory fountain.

“Over the last decade about 200,000 sub-Saharan Africans per year have reached Europe.”

FIGARO : When will the “stampede for Europe” that you predict, erupt?

Stephen Smith : When Africa breaches the threshold of prosperity at which mass migration becomes possible, because large numbers of Africans will then have the means to set out on the journey. This hasn’t been reached yet, but the movement has begun. Broadly speaking, over the last decade about 200,000 sub-Saharan Africans per year have reached Europe. There were more of them in 2015, the record year for migrations, albeit swollen by the exodus from Syria and Afghanistan. The Africans were simply swept in through the open door. This is why speaking today of a “refugee crisis” is a bit like sleight-of-hand.

FIGARO : Do you see the handling of the migration issue becoming more and more politicised?

Stephen Smith : Indeed yes; everyone, starting with the politicians, interprets it as he wishes, keeping his cards well hidden: some saying that there is no longer a migration crisis, since the influx has returned to its pre-2015 level. But this is only because Europe is paying Turkey — to the tune of €6bn — to block the exodus of hundreds of thousands of migrants from its territory. Moreover, Italy has secretly negotiated a deal with the Libyan warlords, and accords have been signed with African countries to take back their citizens — including with the Sudan of Omar el-Bashir, who is being pursued by the stephensmithinternational justice system. Others confine the “migration crisis” to the consequences of the record influx of 2015 and to sharing the burden of ” secondary movements”, that is, of rejected asylum-seekers who do not return to their home countries and instead roam around Europe in search of accommodation. Last, there are the populists who want to reopen the question, under cover of the “migration crisis”, of all immigrants having arrived since the end of Second World War. This is a very radical view, but by asserting that the migrant-workers of yesterday and the immigrants of today find difficulty in integrating as fellow-citizens, their theories have found a wide audience in numerous European countries.

FIGARO : You rail against both the rank pessimism and naive optimism that interfere with the proper understanding and representation of these migratory phenomena in Europe.

Stephen Smith : I try to keep to the facts and find a middle way between selfishness and its narrow perspectives on the one hand, and on the other, the narcissistic moralising and the tendency to dwell on the dark side, which depicts Africa — a whole continent — as some “hell”, to be escaped at any price. I understand very well the African migrant who wants to gain entry to this haven of peace and prosperity that is Europe: 7% of the world’s population enjoys half of all global spending on social security! But I also understand the European who is dizzied by the speed of change taking place around him, and without ever having moved house, suddenly feels no longer “at home” there.

Both sides have a right to know the facts: after that, it’s open to anyone to construct his opinion. Yet often, the facts are not respected in the current debate. Some examples:

  • The [Western principle of] “co-development”  helps Africa to reach a first threshold of prosperity: but rather than keep Africans at home, this actually uproots them.
  • In September 2015, the [drowning] death of little Aylan on the Turkish coast rocked and shamed Europe. However, it went unreported that the father of the little Kurdish boy had stable employment in Turkey, but wishing to take up residence in Australia, had decided to force the hand of the Australian authorities when they had already refused him a visa.
  • Again, in the record year of 2015, a migrant’s risk of drowning in the Mediterranean  was 0.37% — one quarter of the mortality in women giving birth in South Sudan.

Of course, none of this changes one iota the tragedy that is the loss of each human life.

FIGARO : In your view, does focusing on the Mediterranean distort the debate?

Stephen Smith : I think it’s dishonest to characterise the situation in the Mediterranean as “fortress Europe”, which transforms the sea into a “cemetery open to the sky”, if not the scene of a “silent genocide”. African migrants take a calculated risk — with all the more confidence, by the way, because they count on being picked up at sea by humanitarian NGOs. The traffickers also respond to this by cramming more migrants into ever more flimsy craft, even if it increases the risk. Le Figaro