Since last year, the countries of North Africa and the Middle East have been at centre stage for the world media due to the events there. What was excitedly dubbed Arab Spring has now, after the first elections, turned to talk of Arab Autumn. Those drawn to historical parallels can see similarities to the spring of 1848 in Europe and the endless disputes in the Frankfurt Parliament and the Second Reich. These countries have been closely tied with Europe for thousands of years. A number of fathers of the church were active in North Africa; Augustine and Origen are the first that come to mind. Around 1,300 years ago, these countries fell into the sphere of influence of another religion, Islam. During the Age of Discovery, they were bypassed by new trade routes, until the building of the Suez Canal in 1870. During the 19th century and after the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in World War I, these countries became dependent on the great nations of Europe; independence came only after World War II. During the last half century, they have been a significant source of migration to Europe.

The Turks in Germany and North Africans in France have sparked discussions on the topic of immigration. More extremist views hold that the migrant workers will achieve what the caliphate did not do in the Battle of Tours and the Ottomans failed to do at the gates of Vienna – and raise the green flag of Islam over the capitals of Europe. Looking at population growth in North African countries and Turkey, one gets the impression of a growing human reservoir that is brimming over. The following table (source: US statistics) shows the population in 1960 and 2011:

As we see, during this time the populations of five of the countries tripled and that of Libya quintupled. France’s population in 1960 was 46.6 million; in 2012 it stands at 65.4 million; Germany’s has increased from 72.5 million to 81.3 million. Immigration to Europe has out-stripped emigration, but the situation is the opposite in several North African countries. The population of Germany and France has been growing at only 1 per 1,000 people in recent years as a result of immigration. In Turkey and Libya as well, the growing economy needs workers and the US statistics show that immigration exceeds emigration in these countries. In 1973, the population of Turkey increased by 1 per 1,000 per year, and that of Libya increased by 31 people per 1,000, yet now immigration and emigration have evened out. Emigration is greater in Morocco, where the population shrank annually by 5 people in 1,000 during the 1980s, and now by four people per 1,000.

Immigration is promoted by Europe’s low natural population growth. Negative population growth was first seen in France after rapid population growth. A textbook from the Vichy era stated: “As mentioned, France’s main problem is the demographic problem. To increase its population, France has radically eliminated all requirements of racial purity. However, this gradually leads to a very acute danger of a coloured population. Extending compulsory military service to coloureds and appointment of coloured officers could create a situation where an armed mass of coloureds seizes power in French colonies. /.../ The colonies will remain solely under French administration in future, as France lacks energy, power and the necessary human resources of its body politic to populate the colonies with white settlers.”(1) The author also mentions the diminishing relative importance of France. Whereas during the reign of Louis XIV, 20 million French accounted for 40% of the population of Europe, during WWII the 42 million French were just 1/13 of the population. Those more than 60 years of age made up one-tenth of the population. The following is said in the spirit of those German era regarding French demographic policy, under which arrivals from the colonies were given citizenship if they married a French woman: “France has deliberately deserted the fundamentals of racial purity.”(2)

Currently Europe is an net immigration region, but only 100 years ago people were emigrating in droves. Settlers from Europe colonized America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Demographers tell us that all peoples undergo similar population trends but do so according to their own rules, which cannot be explained by other processes taking place in society.(3) They add that although the development is similar, it does not take place at the same time in the case of different nations. A thousand years from now, an anomaly in one generation may just be a blip.

Young Egyptians in Cairo a year after the demonstrations that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The Arabic text on the wall reads “Eye of Freedom Street” and replaces the street’s old name, Mahammed Mahmud. Photo: Scanpix

Thus the population growth in Europe’s southern and south-eastern neighbours will have to slow down, too. Looking at the US data and forecasts, this is indeed the case. The population in Algeria grew 2.6% per year in 1987. This year, the projection is 1.2% growth and zero growth by 2050. In 1987, fertile women gave birth to an average 5.3 children; this year it is 1.7. A total 34 children were born per 1,000 people in 1987 and this year the forecast is 17. At the same time the average life expectancy has increased. In 1987, it was 65, today; almost 75. Significantly, infant mortality has decreased. In 1987, 77 children in 1,000 died before the age of 5, now the figure is 29. Mortality has decreased faster than the birth rate. In 1987 eight people in 1,000 died; this year the figure is 5. Initially the decreasing birth rate will be offset by the increasing life expectancy, which at some point will lead to a new ageing trend and increasing mortality. It is predicted that in 2050 Algeria’s mortality will be 10 per 1,000 people per year.

Similar developments have taken place in other countries as well. The birth rate is still high in Egypt, 28 per 1,000 people in 1996, and currently it is 24. Women of child-bearing age have 3.7 and 2.9 children, respectively. The number of births per woman of child-bearing age is currently 2.2 in Morocco, 2.0 in Tunisia and 2.1 in Turkey, which is just barely at or below the natural replacement rate. In Estonia, according to Statistics Estonia, the total fertility rate in 2010 was 1.64 (on the basis of projected number of births during a woman’s lifetime, calculated on the basis of this year’s data), while it was 2.16 as recently as 1970. Life expectancy at birth in Estonia in 2010 was close to 76. The biggest change in life expectancy occurred in Libya, where the figure stood at 58 years in 1973 (Estonia’s was 70 at that time) but now is 78, according to US statisticians. Estonia’s life expectancy according to the same source is now 74, which is nearly equal to the same figure for the countries in this overview, and which is lowest in Turkey and Egypt (73 years).

It can be concluded that the population of North Africa and the Middle East will continue to grow for another one or two generations, but that the growth will decrease and the elderly will start increasing. The Americans project that in 2050 the population of Turkey will be 101 million, Egypt 103.7 million, Algeria 44.2 million, Morocco 42 million, Tunisia 12.2 million and Libya 10.9 million.

Emigration from these countries will probably continue, but unless some catastrophe occurs there is no reason to believe that emigration will become more intensive than it has been to this point.

(1)  E. Kareda, Majandusgeograafia. Õpik gümnaasiumi V klassile (Economic geography, a gymnasium textbook), Tartu Eesti Kirjastus, 1943, p. 92.
(2)  Ibid, p. 88.
(3)  „The basic shift in understanding of demographic developments, which started in the 1930s and on which modern demographic theory is based, consists of a simple fact: no longer is an attempt made to explain demographic development through and using other social processes. Demographic development functions as an independent social system, subject to specific laws and rules.” Eesti põlvkondlik rahvastikuareng, (Estonia’s generational demographic development) Kalev Katus, Allan Puur, Asta Põldma, Tallinn 2002, p. 24. 

Vootele Hansen