By Tony Elumelu
Images of refugees attempting to reach Europe through any and all possible means have dominated global media for weeks. Yet recent action by EU leaders to address this crisis, although laudable, in no way addresses the underlying challenges fueling the waves of migrants heading for European shores.
Most of the migrants are refugees from war-torn Syria in the Middle East, but thousands of others are actually from my continent—Africans seeking better economic opportunities. The images of whole families carrying little more than the clothes on their backs trekking through an unforgiving desert and sailing across a perilous sea to reach Europe is juxtaposed against the preeminent narrative of the last decade of “Africa rising.”
What these competing stories about Africa reveal is a continent that is indeed experiencing a surge in economic growth, but growth that is not inclusive and is not creating nearly enough suitable employment opportunities for an exploding population of young people. For example, economists estimate that Africa will create 54 million new jobs by 2020, but 122 million Africans will enter the labour force during that time, leaving tens of millions unemployed, underemployed, and looking far and wide for opportunity.
The only lasting solution to reduce the economic motivation of these migrants is to focus on creating opportunities for Africans at home by empowering local entrepreneurs and businesses to thrive and spread prosperity. I call this “Africapitalism.”
Poverty, political instability and civil war are all powerful “push factors” for migration. Syrians, who account for the largest number of arrivals, have left behind a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 and turned nearly 4 million into refugees. Similarly, a large number of migrants are from the far northern region of Nigeria where the terrorist group Boko Haram has been waging a bloody insurgency.
But migrants from African countries like Eritrea—another large source of migrants—cite economic issues, forced conscription and a repressive government as their reasons for leaving, which means it’s very unlikely they will be allowed to find a new home somewhere in Europe. Other migrants are fleeing from Gambia and Senegal, countries which do not have active conflicts, which means Europe will likely continue to grapple with a flood of illegal migrants even after the Syrian conflict subsides.
European countries must offer refuge or other types of protection to asylum-seekers who can show that they are fleeing war or persecution, under the 1951 Refugee Convention and other EU laws. They are under no such obligation, however, to those looking to improve their prospects. At a time when many European countries are grappling with their own economic problems, accepting economic migrants may be simply unfeasible. This leaves Europe with a choice about whether it will focus only on mitigating the immediate challenge the current wave of migrants present or if a long-term solution will be put in place to stem migration at the source.
In 2014, EU institutions pledged more than $4 billion in development assistance throughout Africa. Germany recently announced it will spend nearly $7 billion on the current wave of refugees requesting resettlement. Just as more development aid is not the answer to Africa’s economic woes, neither is Europe’s willingness to take in more migrants going to stem the tide of humanity amassing on her borders. Going forward, the long-term solution to Europe’s migration challenge is the same solution needed for the millions of Africans still struggling to make ends meet: sustained and inclusive economic growth throughout the continent.
Earlier this year, the Tony Elumelu Foundation committed $100 million to support 10,000 emerging African entrepreneurs across the continent with seed capital, training, mentoring, and networking to help them turn their ideas into viable businesses. This year, of the more than 20,000 applicants to the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Programme, nearly 500 Africans based in 18 different countries outside the continent applied so they could return home to seek economic opportunities in Africa, the flip side of the migrant crisis.
Better opportunities for economic advancement will not only improve the outlook of Africans, but will also deflate a primary motivation behind the thousands of them attempting or contemplating a dangerous and illegal trek to Europe. To effectively accomplish this, let us unleash the potential of Africa’s entrepreneurs and businesses, which will in turn create new companies and good paying jobs which will generate increased tax revenue and more local value addition, driving broad economic development and social wealth creation. This is the essence of Africapitalism.
We need entrepreneurs, politicians, philanthropic foundations, and development organizations working together to solve the unemployment crisis and make Africa an engine of growth. If we are outrun by the employment challenge, Africa will be a drag on global growth and resources for generations to come, and the current tidal wave of Africans attempting illegally migrate to Europe will look like a trickle by comparison.
Africapitalism believes in the inherent ingenuity, commitment to hard work, and desire for self-sufficiency of Africans. It is an economic philosophy that also believes that the African private sector, in cooperation with governments, development institutions, civil society and others, will be the most important source of rising and expanding prosperity in Africa. And it is only once there are more opportunities for Africans in their home countries that Europe will be a less attractive option.
Tony O. Elumelu is chairman of Heirs Holdings and founder of the Tony Elumelu Foundation