Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

Sub-Saharan African Immigrants in the U.S. Are Often More Educated Than Those in Top European Destinations

Sub-Saharan immigrants in the United States are also more highly educated than U.S. native-born population

Shugri Elmi and Mariam Cheick listen to a speaker during Immigrants' Day at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on April 4. Both immigrated from Somalia and became citizens. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Shugri Elmi and Mariam Cheick listen to a speaker during Immigrants’ Day at the Massachusetts State House in Boston on April 4. Both immigrated from Somalia and became citizens. (Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As the annual number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to both the United States and Europe has grown for most years this decade, a Pew Research Center analysis of 2015 U.S. Census Bureau and Eurostat data finds that sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. tend to be more highly educated than those living in the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Portugal – Europe’s historically leading destinations among sub-Saharan immigrants.1

In the U.S., 69% of sub-Saharan immigrants ages 25 and older in 2015 said they had at least some college experience.2 In the same year, the share in the UK who reported some college experience was 49%, while it was lower still in France (30%), Portugal (27%) and Italy (10%).

Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa living in the U.S. are also somewhat more likely to be employed than their counterparts in Portugal, France and Italy.3 In 2015, 92.9% of U.S.-based sub-Saharan immigrants said they had a paying job, compared with 84.9% in Portugal, 83.7% in France and 80.3% in Italy.4 Meanwhile, the share of sub-Saharan immigrants in the UK who are working (91.5%) was nearly equal to that in the U.S.

The U.S., UK, France, Italy and Portugal are some of the top destinations of sub-Saharan migrants living outside of sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2015, however, more than two-thirds (69%) of migrants from sub-Saharan countries actually lived in other sub-Saharan African countries.

Together, the U.S., UK, France, Italy and Portugal were home to more than half (57%) of the sub-Saharan migrant population living outside sub-Saharan Africa in 2015, according to global migrant population estimates from the United Nations. And the four European countries featured in this report accounted for roughly three-quarters (74%) of all sub-Saharan immigrants living in EU countries, Norway and Switzerland in the same year.

Historically, sub-Saharan immigrants have made up small shares of the total population in the U.S., UK, France, Italy and Portugal – 3% or less in each country, as of 2015. But annual migration to the U.S. and Europe from sub-Saharan Africa rose most years this decade. In all, well more than a million sub-Saharans have migrated to the U.S. and to EU countries, Norway and Switzerland since 2010. Migration pressures for some sub-Saharans to leave Africa are expected to continue as the continent’s population grows, young people struggle to find employment and protracted conflicts continue.

About the data

Total migrant population estimates across destination countries of sub-Saharan immigrants are from the United Nations. These estimates were used to determine top destinations and origins of sub-Saharan immigrants.

The demographic and economic characteristics of sub-Saharan African immigrants living in the U.S. and top European destinations in 2015 were drawn from two sources: the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and (2) Eurostat’s Labor Force Survey.

Both surveys are nationally representative and interviewed hundreds of thousands of people. Of those interviewed, at least 1,500 in each country were immigrants born in sub-Saharan countries. Interviews were generally conducted in the language of the survey country. Many of sub-Saharan immigrants were born in countries that also speak the same language as the survey country, according to UN estimates. (One exception is Italy, where many sub-Saharan immigrants were born in non-Italian-speaking countries).

Demographic variables like sex, age and marital status as well as socioeconomic variables such as education and employment were standardized across the two datasets for maximum comparability. Other variables such as occupation were not as comparable across surveys. See the Methodology for more details on the selection and standardization of variables.

U.S. data for demographic and economic findings were accessed via the University of Minnesota’s Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS). European microdata were provided by Eurostat.

Migration policies have helped shape the educational profile of sub‑Saharan immigrants

Globally, migrants from Africa with higher levels of education have been more likely to move to more developed countries than those from other regions of the world. Some studies also have found that the least educated sub-Saharan Africans are not always the ones to migrate. But the specific destinations of those with higher education levels can vary.

Between 2010 and 2016, about a quarter of sub-Saharan African immigrants entered the U.S. through its diversity visa program, which requires applicants to have at least a high school education. This requirement may help explain why relatively few sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. – just 11% – have less than a high school education.5

In recent years, nearly half of lawful permanent residents entering the U.S. from sub-Saharan Africa have entered as family members of U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. Statistics on the education levels for this specific population are not publicly available. However, hints of overall education levels can be found in U.S. immigration statistics from 2015: about half of all immigrants from both North and sub-Saharan Africa who were active in the labor force and had obtained legal permanent residence reported working in a professional or managerial occupation.6 Often such occupations require a relatively high level of education.7

Within Europe, Pew Research Center’s analysis finds that educational levels of sub-Saharan immigrants varies across the region’s top destination countries, with those living in the UK better educated than those in Italy.

Colonial histories have helped contribute to the flow of sub-Saharan immigrants to specific countries. For instance, many of sub-Saharan immigrants living in the UK, France and Portugal were born in countries that were once under the rule of these European states. A key factor can be language. Fluency in a European tongue, whether English, French or Portuguese, may be an advantage for a migrant seeking a job and creating a new life in a destination country.

Thus, UN data show that most of the sub-Saharan immigrant populations in the U.S. and UK come from countries where English is spoken. In fact, English is a language of importance in six of the 10 biggest source countries for sub-Saharan African immigrants in the U.S. and the UK: Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania.

The top countries of origin for sub-Saharan Africans now living in France and Portugal also share a bond of language with these destinations. For example, many of the top birthplaces for sub-Saharan African immigrants in France are French-speaking African nations or territories, with Madagascar, Senegal or the Ivory Coast accounting for 34% of all sub-Saharan migrants living in France. A similar trend can be seen in Portugal, where the three largest birthplaces for sub-Saharan African immigrants were at one time under Portuguese rule: Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde. Together, they make up the vast majority (80%) of all sub-Saharan migrants living in Portugal. (See Appendix C for a list of top birthplaces.)

Migrants do not necessarily stay at the same educational level as when they entered the destination country. Consequently, some sub-Saharan immigrants may have achieved their current educational attainment after arriving in the destination country. The data used in this report do not distinguish the location of schooling. Nonetheless, migration policies and pathways can lead some demographic groups – for example, those with lower or higher education – to leave their countries and choose to migrate to one country over another.

In the U.S., UK and Portugal, a higher share of sub-Saharan immigrants than the native born have some college education

Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa ages 25 and older in the U.S. not only stand out from those in Europe, but they are also more likely than the overall U.S.-born population to have at least some college experience (69% vs. 63%). A similar pattern is present in the UK and Portugal.8

There are more modest educational differences between sub-Saharan African immigrants and the native-born populations in France and Italy for the share with a college education, with a lower share of sub-Saharan immigrants in Italy (10%) having some college education than those born in Italy (15%).

Employment levels of immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries living in the U.S. are about the same as those of native born in the U.S. In 2015, 92.9% of sub-Saharan immigrants were employed compared with 93.8% of those born in the U.S.

By contrast, sub-Saharan immigrants in parts of Europe generally have lower levels of employment than native-born populations in the nations in which they reside. These differences are most pronounced in Italy. Some 80.3% of sub-Saharan immigrants in Italy were employed in 2015, compared with 88.7% of all those born in Italy. Gaps are somewhat smaller in the UK (91.5% among sub-Saharan immigrants versus 94.9% for UK-born), France (83.7% vs. 90.5%) and Portugal (84.9% vs. 87.8%). (For country-specific details on educational attainment and employment, see Appendix B.)

Majority of sub-Saharan immigrants in U.S. and top European destinations arrived a decade ago or earlier

Most sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. and other top European destinations have lived in these countries for a decade or more.

This is especially true in Portugal, where 87% of sub-Saharan African immigrants there have lived in the country for at least 10 years.9 In the U.S. and most other European countries, roughly two-thirds of sub-Saharan immigrants have lived in the destination country for a decade or longer.

In some countries, however, the remaining share living in the destination country for less than a decade is notably large. In 2015, roughly four-in-ten sub-Saharan African immigrants (39%) had lived in the U.S. one to nine years, including 19% who have arrived within one to four years.10

Italy is also home to many newly arrived sub-Saharan Africans: Roughly a third (35%) of this foreign-born population arrived one to nine years ago as of 2015.11

In all, more than 1.5 million sub-Saharan African immigrants lived in the U.S. in 2015, according to UN global migration estimates; 1.2 million lived in the UK, and close to 1 million resided in France. Italy and Portugal had about 370,000 and 360,000, respectively.

Regardless of when or where sub-Saharan immigrants have arrived in these destination countries, not all sub-Saharan immigrants are living in these countries legally. Some, for instance, are unauthorized immigrants who may have overstayed their visa or did not receive asylum after a lengthy application process.

In the U.S., for example, Pew Research Center estimated there were roughly 250,000 unauthorized sub-Saharan immigrants living in the U.S. in 2015. This amounts to roughly one-in-seven sub-Saharan immigrants living in the country.

There are no official Europe-wide estimates for the unauthorized, or irregular, migrant population of sub-Saharan Africans living in Europe.12 But the Center’s recent report on the status of asylum seekers applying for asylum during the asylum surge of 2015 and 2016 in all EU countries, Norway and Switzerland combined estimates that between 60,000 and 70,000 sub-Saharan African asylum applicants had an unknown status at the end of 2016. Most with an unknown status applied for asylum in Italy.

Few differences on gender, age and household composition between sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. and in top European destinations

The gender composition of sub-Saharan African immigrants in the U.S. and France is equally balanced, while this population skews more female in Portugal and the UK. Meanwhile, in Italy – unlike other top destinations – sub-Saharan African immigrants are more likely to be male than female (58% vs. 42%).

When compared with sub-Saharan African immigrants in Europe, those who live in the U.S. are somewhat younger, with a median age of 38 years versus 47 in Portugal and 42 in the UK, France or Italy.13

Marriage rates among sub-Saharan immigrants in the U.S. and top European destination countries present only a few differences. In the U.S., 55% of sub-Saharan African immigrants ages 20 and older in 2015 were married. This share is identical or similar for those living in the UK (55%) and Italy (57%). Meanwhile, the shares of sub-Saharan immigrants living in France and Portugal each hover around 50%, slightly lower than those in other leading destinations of immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries.

At the same time, roughly nine-in-ten married sub-Saharan immigrants in these countries live with their spouses. With the exception of Italy, where roughly seven-in-ten married sub-Saharan immigrants live with their spouse, these rates are largely similar to the total native born population in the U.S. and European countries.

Household size varies little among this immigrant population: The mean household size of sub-Saharan immigrants living in the U.S. and top European destinations is three – which is on par with the native-born populations in the countries where they reside.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, “Europe” refers to European Union countries, Norway and Switzerland, 30 countries in all. In 2015, the UK was still part of the EU even though it voted to leave it in 2016. This analysis of sub-Saharan African immigrants in Europe is based on data from the 2015 Eurostat Labor Force Survey, which does not disaggregate sub-Saharan Africa into specific countries; consequently, country-specific analysis is not available. Additionally, Sudan is included as a sub-Saharan African country in this report, but Reunion is not. These changes differ from previous reports. This modification is due to the classification of sub-Saharan African countries by Eurostat. See Appendix D for list of countries and territories that are considered part of sub-Saharan Africa for this report.
  2. All foreign born are considered immigrants in this report even though they may have been citizens of the U.S. or selected European countries when they were born abroad.
  3. Employment rates are based on those in the labor market.
  4. High educational attainment and employment levels among immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa in these destination countries do not imply sub-Saharan immigrants are necessarily working in high-level occupations. Comparable occupational data across the U.S. and European countries were unavailable. Separate analyses in each dataset, however, show that there could be a mismatch of occupations with education levels for sub-Saharan immigrants in these contexts, especially within France and Italy, where lower shares of highly educated sub-Saharan immigrants are less likely to be in higher occupations than native-born populations in these countries.
  5. Randy Capps, Kristen McCabe, and Michael Fix. “Diverse Streams: African Migration to the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. April 2012.
  6. This analysis is among those who stated an occupation and are in the labor force.
  7. Some research has noted that the number of doctors emigrating from sub-Saharan Africa to the U.S. is also on the rise.
  8. The reported level of educational attainment among the UK-born population should be interpreted with some caution because roughly 20% of UK-born respondents did not answer the educational attainment question in Eurostat’s Labor Force Survey.
  9. Portugal began experiencing large waves of immigration in the 1970s. Many of these new immigrants migrated from former Portuguese-ruled territories in Africa. More recent cycles of migration in the mid-1980s to the late 1990s and were dominated by those from African nations.
  10. Those living in each country for less than one year are not available for European nations and therefore are not included in U.S. figures.
  11. Since data are from the 2015 Eurostat Labor Force Survey, the results do not capture the most recent wave of sub-Saharan migration to Europe. Furthermore, the Eurostat Labor Force Survey was only conducted in each country’s official language; therefore those who did not speak the language may be undercounted. This may be especially true of the recently arrived African immigrants to Italy given the top birthplaces are non-Italian speaking nations. See Methodology to learn more about survey methods and limitations.
  12. Clandestino is a comprehensive research project on irregular migration within Europe, but estimates across all EU countries for specific origin regions are limited.
  13. Median age figures from the Eurostat Labor Force Survey use five-year age bands, so 42 is a median age group of ages 40 to 44 while 47 is a median age group of ages 45 to 49.
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