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It’s about violence and religious extremism, not population pressure

My Times column on African demography and the migration crisis:

Even the most compassionate of European liberals must wonder at times whether this year’s migration crisis is just the beginning of a 21st- century surge of poor people that will overwhelm the rich countries of our continent. With African populations growing fastest, are we glimpsing a future in which the scenes we saw on the Macedonian border, or on Kos or in the seas around Sicily last week will seem tame?

I don’t think so. The current migration crisis is being driven by war and oppression, not demography. Almost two thirds of the migrants reaching Europe by boat this year are from three small countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. These are not even densely populated countries: their combined populations come to less than England’s, let alone Britain’s, and none of them is in the top 20 for population growth rates.

Well then, perhaps that is even more ominous. If these three relatively small countries can cause such turmoil, imagine what would happen if say the more populous countries in Africa fell into similar chaos. Today Africa’s population (north and sub-Saharan) is about 50 per cent larger than Europe’s (East and West). By 2050, when — according to United Nations estimates — Africa’s population will have more than doubled from 1.1 billion to about 2.4 billion people and Europe’s will have shrunk from 740 million to about 709 million, there will be more than three Africans for every European.

Actually, demography is a poor predictor of migration. Nowhere in the world are people leaving countries specifically because of population growth or density. The population density of Germany is five times as high as that of Afghanistan or Eritrea: unlike water, people often move up population gradients. Tiny Eritrea, with only five million people, is a hell-hole for purely political reasons. It has a totalitarian government that tries to make North Korea and the old East Germany look tame: it conscripts every 17-year-old into lifelong and total service of the state. No wonder 3 per cent of its people have already left.

It is equally obvious why people are clamouring to leave Syria and Afghanistan: violence is driving them out, not shortage of food, space, or water, let alone climate change or anything else. (Notoriously, in 2005 the UN Environment Programme forecast 50 million climate-change refugees by 2010.)

So it is simply not the case that migration of Africans (or Asians) will be driven by their ever-increasing numbers. Ethiopia, next-door to Eritrea, is the second most populous country in Africa, with higher population density than Eritrea, and 90 million people. But its government is only mildly authoritarian, its economic growth rate is an astonishing 8-12 per cent over the past five years and people are not clamouring to leave.

Geographically speaking, Africa is an enormous continent. You can fit China, India, the United States, Mexico, Europe and Japan inside it, and still have space left over. When it has a population of 2.4 billion in 2050, it will still have fewer people than the 4 billion who live in those places today. Of the 50 least densely populated countries in the world, 16 are in Africa. The continent is far from overflowing.

As for feeding this multitude, much of Africa can grow fabulous crops several times a year. Without access to synthetic fertilizer, yields have lagged behind Asia, but they are starting to catch up and when they do, Africa will easily be able to feed 2.4 billion people and export a surplus. Already, despite fast-growing populations, famine is gone from Africa, except where mad and bad regimes cause it.

With the death tolls from HIV-Aids and malaria falling rapidly, the continent is currently experiencing a plunge in child mortality, which in turn is encouraging birth rates to fall: when people expect their children to live, they have fewer of them. The birth rate in Kenya has halved in the past 40 years. It is called the demographic transition, and it happened here more than a century ago.

Africa’s population growth will slow during this century. The richer it gets the more that growth rate will slow. But there are already easily enough Africans to overwhelm Europe’s capacity to cope if they all come here, so there is nothing especially alarming about the idea of a larger future population in Africa. The problem isn’t demography.

No, what drives migration is violence, perpetrated these days either by dictatorial regimes, or by religious extremists, rarely by other causes.

In Syria, of course, both causes have combined to deadly effect. The global Sunni-Shia civil war, the war of militant Islamists against Christians, the kidnapping of women and children by Boko Haram, Islamic State and the Lord’s Resistance Army — these are the kind of things that will drive poor people into Europe from Africa and Asia. The best way to make that flow less overwhelming is not to reduce population but to extinguish wars, expel dictators and calm religious extremisms: easier said than done.

The one demographic trend that gives cause for concern is the birth rate among religious extremists. As Eric Kaufmann pointed out in 2010 in his book Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth?, there is a dramatic and growing difference between the family size of moderate and fundamentalist believers in every major religion. Fundamentalists are literally out-breeding moderates within Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Mormonism and Judaism. Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews have an average of 7.5 children; secular ones 2.2. In cities in Muslim countries, women who are most in favour of Sharia have twice as many children as women who most oppose it.

Combine this with the result derived from twin studies that, while the particular religion you practise clearly does not run in the genes, the degree of religious enthusiasm does to some extent.

Imagine then that by the middle of this century, people with a tendency to become highly religious have become a much greater proportion of the population than today. That could be a recipe for more violence. (You may think I am equating all religion with violence. No, but next time you hear about a violent atrocity on a train or in a shopping mall, you don’t say to yourself — there go those agnostics again.)

Fortunately, children often do the opposite of what their parents tell them, and religious revivals have a tendency to fade. So it is just as likely that the spasms of violence causing surges of migration from poor countries will have died away by mid century.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times