Mobility in the European Union: What don’t we know?

April 19, 2018

by Veronika Fajth

For many Europeans, mobility within the European Union is such an inherent part of everyday life that the availability of precise statistics on these movements may seem like a given. However, a new data-mapping exercise conducted as part of the REMINDER project has revealed that our understanding of intra-EU migration is still far from complete. Even basic stock and flow statistics on internal European movements suffer from considerable shortcomings: existing data does not reveal who is moving, why, and why to that specific country. In this post, we highlight three of the key challenges we experienced in gathering data on intra-EU mobility.

Who is an intra-EU mover?

A first dilemma we came across relates to definitions, namely: who do we consider an intra-EU mover? The three main categories of immigrant individuals in EU countries who tend to be captured as “intra-EU” migrants: immigrants who are EU citizens, those born in another EU country, and those who used to reside in another EU country.

As indicated by the white text in and outside the intersections of the circles, each of these three categories may refer to four separate groups with regards to the EU origins of their members. If we really are only interested in movements taking part within the EU’s territory, we must recognize the role of secondary movements: EU nationals (and EU-born individuals) may have moved to a non-EU country before their migration to a foreign Member State from outside the EU, and people of non-EU origins may perform additional movements within the EU. If we solely base our definition on citizenship or country of birth, we may erroneously include the former group and exclude the latter. Information on migrants’ previous country of residence is therefore a crucial first step to capture the real scope of movements happening within the EU.

Going further, in order to understand the relative share of EU citizens and third-country nationals among intra-EU movers, not only do we need residence-based immigration data, but this data also needs to be further disaggregated by immigrants’ citizenship and/or country of birth. Currently, Eurostat shares immigration information (for most Member States) based on all three definitions, but double disaggregation is only possible between country of birth and citizenship-based data (other sources, with the exception of UNDESA, only have birth or citizenship-based immigration data, leaving out prior residence altogether). While the share of EU-origin movers coming from outside Europe, as well as the share of third-country nationals moving internally may be relatively small, its significance cannot be grasped until these statistics are readily available.

What about serial movers/mobility over the lifetime?

The issue of secondary movements brings us to the next major gap: the lack of information on extended migration trajectories. The overwhelming majority of currently available migration statistics track only the migrant’s latest movement (at the time). Even surveys provide little information on repeated migration episodes over people’s lifetime; at best, we have information on returnees. This omission reflects a simplified view of migratory behaviour, which in real life can follow a variety of non-linear patterns, such as onward migration, re-migration following return, as well as seasonal or other forms of circular migration. Knowing more about non-linear migration patterns could help us better understand the real nature of European mobility and learning about individuals’ migration histories could help gauge the degree to which previous movements may predict future movements. For instance, experiences of previous migrations to a country may influence future migration decisions: even a short-term move within the framework of the Erasmus university exchange programme can spark an aspiration to migrate to the country permanently, and/or develop an openness to the migration experience in general (Favell, 2011; King & Ruiz-Gelices, 2003; Parey & Waldinger, 2011).

Why are people moving within Europe?

In addition to mapping databases, our team also performed a comprehensive review of the empirical literature discussing the drivers of intra-EU movements in the past decade.

The lack of residence permit requirements within the EU – the most common information source on nature of movements – means that cross-national data on individual’s reasons for moving between Member States is severely limited and is largely based on a few selected surveys. Generally speaking, we gather from existing research that the motives of mobile Europeans are highly diverse, but work and personal relationships are clearly the two main driving factors. Work-related factors include employment, higher wages, career prospects and working conditions. Motivations tied to personal relationships involve familial as well as romantic relationships (Alaminos et al., 2007; Birindelli & Rustichelli, 2007; Eurostat, 2016).

While work and personal relationships are typically the two most often indicated motives for both males and females, their relative popularity within gender groups reveals the persistence of a traditional gender divide, with work being predominant for males, and family (or personal relationships) being predominant for women (ibid.).

Regarding geographical differences, income differentials elicit nationals from the new member states more often than EU15 nationals, who are likely to put more weight on career development, family motivations, or new experiences when deciding to move (Barslund, Busse, & Schwarzwälder, 2015).

In connection to the latter, some recently emerging factors beyond the “classic” drivers of work and family include lifestyle considerations include, for example, the environment, culture, and climate, and motives related to personal development, and self-fulfilment (Benson & O’Reilly, 2009; Santacreu, Baldoni, & Albert, 2009). Education and asylum-related migration represent only a very small part of long-term intra-EU movements, but, as mentioned above, short-term study mobility can trigger longer-term moves in the future.

Some further limitations in our understanding of what drives intra-EU mobility stem from the limited topical and geographical focus of the existing literature. First of all, we find that the scholarly literature on intra-EU migration is almost solely concerned with the movements of EU nationals. The movements of third-country nationals across Member States are a severely overlooked phenomenon, which is likely due, at least in part, to the shortcomings in data mentioned earlier. A second pattern we notice in the literature is a disproportionate geographical focus on migration from the new member states directed towards EU15 countries – the most highly politicized migration corridors – while much less is available on intra-EU15 movements or other interregional corridors. Thirdly, there seems to be an overt focus on one type of migration in particular: work-related movements. Labour-motivated mobility has been studied more frequently and in more depth than any other types of intra-EU migration. With the growing recognition of familial and non-“classic” drivers of migration (see above), we encourage future studies to move beyond the solely labour-oriented approach and start investigating these factors in more detail as well.

Go-to sources for statistics on intra-EU mobility

Another of our objectives in mapping databases was to create a practical collection of go-to sources for individuals interested in statistics, which track intra-European migration. Our review explores a variety of indicators related to European mobility, looking into both data from administrative sources (such as national registries and censuses) and sample-based survey data.

The most comprehensive and detailed collection of European migration statistics is found on Eurostat’s massive online database of statistics. Originating directly from Member States’ national statistical institutes, Eurostat offers information on stocks and flows of EU-born, EU citizen and previously EU-resident immigrants residing in each Member State. Nevertheless, even Eurostat’s compilation suffers from gaps in the availability of data for specific countries and/or years. Other major international databases such as UNDESA and OECD can be helpful in filling in these gaps, in addition to national statistical institutes.

Gathering information on the nature of intra-EU movements is more of a challenge. Given the lack of visa obligations for movements across EEA countries, data from residence permits (the usual source of this information) is not applicable in the intra-EU case. We therefore turned to survey-based data; but even among surveys, only waves from a few selected years prove useful. The 2014 ad-hoc module of the Labour Force Survey (LFS) contained information on movers’ main reason for migrating, but unfortunately this information cannot be disaggregated by migrants’ countries of origin (only insofar as EU12, EU15 etc.). Other – to some degree – useful sources include some waves of the Eurobarometer survey and the 2004 European Internal Movers Social Survey (EIMSS).

The way forward

When it comes to fully understanding intra-European mobility, we still have a surprisingly long way to go. Some key priorities we argue for include better data collection and sharing, concerning in particular residence-based immigration data, availability of multiple disaggregations, and collection of information on migration history. Concerning research on the drivers of intra-EU mobility, data sources could be improved as well, but it is also important that researchers expand the focus of their studies beyond the most highly politicized aspects of intra-EU migration as to better reflect the real unanswered questions.

You can read the paper, which maps existing data sources here.

You can read the literature review here.



Alaminos, A., Recchi, E., Braun, M., Muxel, A., Tambini, D., & Santacreu, O. (2007). European Internal Movers Social Survey (PIONEUR project). (ZA4512 Data file Version 1.0). Cologne: GESIS Data Archive. Retrieved from doi:10.4232/1.4512

Barslund, M., Busse, M., & Schwarzwälder, J. (2015). Labour Mobility in Europe: An untapped resource? (Policy Brief No. 327). Brussels: CEPS.

Benson, M., & O’Reilly, K. (2009). Migration and the search for a better way of life: a critical exploration of lifestyle migration. The Sociological Review, 57(4), 608–625.

Birindelli, L., & Rustichelli, E. (2007). Economic benefits of long-distance mobility (Analysis of Eurobarometer data on mobility). Dublin, Ireland: European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

Eurostat. (2016). First generation of immigrants by sex, citizenship, duration and reason for migration (Datafile). Eurostat. Retrieved from

Favell, A. (2011). Eurostars and Eurocities: Free movement and mobility in an integrating Europe (Vol. 56). John Wiley & Sons.

King, R., & Ruiz-Gelices, E. (2003). International student migration and the European ?Year Abroad?: effects on European identity and subsequent migration behaviour. International Journal of Population Geography, 9(3), 229–252.

Parey, M., & Waldinger, F. (2011). Studying Abroad and the Effect on International Labour Market Mobility: Evidence from the Introduction of ERASMUS*: EFFECT ON INTERNATIONAL LABOUR MARKET MOBILITY. The Economic Journal, 121(551), 194–222.

Santacreu, O., Baldoni, E., & Albert, M. C. (2009). Deciding to move: migration projects in an integrating Europe. In E. Recchi & A. Favell, Pioneers of European integration: Citizenship and mobility in the EU (pp. pp-52-71). Edward Elgar Publishing.



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