»  National Review Online

February 5th, 2007

  Out of Africa


If you want to understand why immigration will be the great world issue of the years immediately in front of us, you could do worse than learn Wolof. This is a West African language used, often in a pidgin form, as a lingua franca in the countries at the westernmost extreme of the West African bulge: Senegal, Gambia, and Mauretania. Wolof is interesting to linguists from a number of points of view. Phonologically, it is very rich in vowel sounds. Grammatically it is like Chinese in regarding the aspect of the verb (completed, ongoing, or habitual) as more important than the tense (past, present, future). Culturally, it is fond of elaborate greeting exchanges, which are used to establish the relative status of everyone present. Wolof proverb: Sawaa dyi, sawaa dyi, gatyangga tya, ndamangga ca — "When two persons greet each other, one has shame, the other has glory." The common greeting in Wolof, by the way, is Salaamaalekum! If you think that sounds like a borrowing from Arabic, you are not mistaken. Most Wolof speakers are Muslim: 90 percent of the population of Gambia, 94 percent of Senegal, 100 percent of Mauretania.

Why am I telling you this? By way of introduction to a rather haunting song, whose words are in the Wolof language. You can play the song here. If you do so, you will see that it comes with a slide show. You should watch the slide show as you listen to the song. (Whose lyrics you can see in a very bad English translation by clicking on the little Union Jack at top right.)

All your beautiful words
All your beautiful promises
We always wait for them

First voice:
You promised me that I would have a job
You promised me that I would never be hungry
You promised me worthwhile life and a future
Yet up to now I still see nothing
That's why I decided to flee, that's why I've put myself in a canoe
I swear it ! I can't stay here one more second.
It is better to die that to live in such conditions, in this hell
Come what may
I prefer to die …

Etc., etc. This is a song of young Senegalese men fleeing their country to seek a better life. They take to small boats — the "canoes" of the song, though they are somewhat bigger than our common notion of a canoe — and head for the Canary Islands, a thousand miles to the north. The Canaries belong to Spain, so that if you land there, you are on the territory of the European Union, with, in theory, easy access to France, Germany, the U.K. or any of the EU's 24 other member states.

The numbers of young West Africans — almost all male — heading for the Canaries have been swelling mightily the past few months. The total arriving in 2006 was 31,000. Spanish authorities estimate that a further 6,000 died at sea. The Canaries have a population of less than two million, so that 31,000 represents one and a half percent — equivalent to 4.5 million illegal immigrants arriving in the USA in one year. Some of the arrivals are sent back; many more blend in to the Canaries' tourism-dominated economy, and eventually make their way to mainland Europe.

It is just dawning on the prosperous, comfortable people of Europe that immediately to their south there is a huge continent of very poor nations, every one of which has masses of citizens desperate for any kind of work. Sound familiar? The hazards involved in making an illegal passage from the poor continent to the rich one are greater for the African-Europe crossing than for the Latin American-USA one. There are, however, several routes available — the most common ones are mapped here (below the story) — and the level of desperation is very high. A man can earn more in one day in Europe, where there are plenty of low-level jobs available, than he can make in a month in West Africa, where jobs are few. GDP per capita runs around $2,000 in West Africa: in Spain the figure is $27,000, in Germany $31,000. Germany's unemployment rate of nine percent is bad enough; in Senegal, though, the rate is 48 percent.

Look at the faces of the migrants in that slide show. Take a good look at them — look into their eyes. They can be taken as representative of tens of millions in a continent with far too many people and far too little hope for a decent life. Not just too many people, too many young people. The median ages in Senegal, Mauretania, Gambia are 19, 17, 18. For Spain, Germany, and Britain the numbers are 40, 43, and 39. This won't change any time soon. Total fertility rates (that is, hypothetical lifetime births per woman, extrapolated from present figures): 4.4, 5.9, 5.3 for the three West African countries; for the European ones, 1.3, 1.4, 1.7. Demographically speaking, Europe and West Africa might as well be different planets. Did I mention that these West Africans are mostly Muslims?

They are also, of course, black. ("They were Senegalese, the blackest Negroes in Africa," — noted George Orwell of some French-colonial troops he saw in Morocco.) Race, religion, demographics: all the obsessions that will dominate the early 21st century are there in those leaky "canoes." Technology plays into the story, too: the hazards of the sea journey have been much reduced by the availability of hand-held GPS devices.

What are the Europeans doing about the matter? Flapping their arms, mostly. There is less brazen promotion of illegal immigration in Europe than here, by interested bodies like employer groups, churches, ethnic lobbies, and wealthy servant-seeking classes. On the other hand, Europe being sunk even deeper in civilizational guilt and political correctness than is the U.S.A., there is less plain talk about the consequences for European culture of a great flood of immigrants mostly black and mostly Muslim.

Furthermore, the evasive bureaucratic culture of the EU governing institutions is ill suited to deal with issues as fraught as this one. Sample quotes from that BBC report I linked to above, title "EU unveils new immigration plans":

The European Union has announced new plans to attract skilled labour from Africa while boosting efforts to fight illegal immigration and trafficking. Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini called for new job centres in Africa to help match supply with demand.

("Willing workers with willing employers"? Boy, this is sounding familiar.)

The EU plans to allocate 40m euros (£27m) to boost job creation in Africa.

(That sound you hear is corrupt African bureaucrats smacking their lips at the prospect of yet more sucker-money coming in from First World do-gooders.)

Mr Frattini proposed establishing EU "Migration Support Teams" to help African countries manage migration.

(Why would they be interested in "managing" it, any more than Mexico is? They have too many poor people, whose discontent is a threat to the ruling elites. Why "manage" the problem when you can just export it?)

He also announced plans to create "European Job Mobility Portals" in African countries which would provide information for local people about job opportunities in Europe.

(The stories I've been reading bout those Senegalese guys in the "canoes" suggest that Africans have all the information they need.)

The new measures are expected to help "step up the dialogue and co-operation on migration issues with Africa," he said.

(Ah, dialogue and co-operation! That'll take care of the problem!)

Some African officials and aid groups have warned that attracting skilled labour will cause a brain-drain in Africa. Mr Frattini insisted his plans would not result in a shortage of educated talent in Africa. "We can avoid the brain-drain by enhancing our assistance to the countries of origin, by promoting initiatives to have a brain circulation rather than a brain drain," he said, quoted by the AP news agency.

The avoidance of reality by the cooking up of gimmicky catch-phrases is by no means exclusively European, but "brain circulation rather than brain drain" is a prize example of this art form none the less. Oh, and here comes a guy who, if he ever gets couped out of power in his own country, has a job waiting for him in the government of Mexico:

Last week, the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, told a conference of more than 50 African and European government ministers that they must accept high levels of cross-border migration. Libya is a key route for thousands of African migrants seeking to cross into Europe to begin a new life. Mr Gaddafi said resisting migration "is like rowing against the stream."

Whether the Europeans will indeed be able to resist the swelling human tsunami depends on a number of things, beginning with a willingness — so far not much in evidence, at least among mainstream political parties — to speak frankly about race, religion, and national identity. As stifled, fearful, and cautious as our own public conversations on these topics are, they are positively free-wheeling by comparison with Europe's, as the vapid mumblings of the EU officials quoted above illustrate.

The Europeans are going to have to learn some honesty. This won't be easy. As the Wolof proverb has it: Dëgg, kaani la — "Truth is a hot pepper."

Postscript.  After I had written this up but before I posted it to NRO, a couple of news stories were brought to my attention. In the first, the government of Barbados, in the West Indies, buried the remains of ten Senegalese migrants headed for the Canaries whose boat had somehow drifted into the deep Atlantic. It's not clear from the story, but I assume the Senegalese had starved to death.

In the other story, 14 Senegalese men were rescued from their sinking catamaran 920 miles off Cape Cod. They had been 47 days at sea. It seems that this party had not drifted off course while headed for the Canaries. They were actually trying to make it to the USA, and very nearly did. (They are now in detention in Brooklyn awaiting deportation. The abbreviations in that last story:  M/V = merchant vessel, M/Y = motorized yacht, OOCL = name of a huge container-shipping line out of Hong Kong.)