Why are people moving within Europe? The complexity of migrant decision-making in the European Union

April 30, 2019

By Katrin Marchand

The principle of free movement between Member States is undoubtedly central to the European project. It is also one of the aspects of European integration that has led to heated debates among both policy-makers and the wider public. Considering the volume of intra-EU migration and the attention these movements receive, it is therefore surprising to find that little is in fact known about why people migrate between European countries. The literature review conducted as part of Work Package 3 of the REMINDER project found that the existing literature tends to focus on migration for the purpose of working in another EU28 country. At the same time, there is a growing push to understand the diversity of motivational factors related to, for example, family or education. Furthermore, the review revealed that intra-EU migration has generally been understood as the singular movements of EU-nationals to another EU country. In reality, movements within the EU are much more complex, including return and onwards migration of both EU28 citizens as well as third country nationals.

Given these gaps in the existing knowledge about the determinants of intra-EU migration, and the centrality of intra-EU mobility within policy and to public conceptions of the European Union, in our new working paper we aim to develop a better understanding of what drives contemporary flows and shapes decision-making of intra-EU migrants. In doing so, we took the “classic” reasons for migration that dominate current understandings of intra-EU migration – work, family, education and asylum – as our point of departure. Using a mixed-methods approach and a cross-country comparative perspective, we focused on different migrant groups with the aim of producing one of the first studies to grasp the multiple and diverse factors that motivate mobility flows around the EU.

We collected data through focus groups, interviews and surveys in five major intra-EU destination countries in 2018: Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK. Our population of interest were individuals who had migrated to one of these five EU destination countries from another country (either EU or non-EU) within the last ten years. We also only included respondents who were at least 18 years old upon arrival in the relevant country, in order to exclude those individuals who moved with their parents or guardians without themselves being involved in the decision. In this first round of fieldwork (a second round is currently on-going), we talked to people in several cities with large immigrant populations. The majority of our fieldwork took place in Barcelona, Berlin, London, Madrid, Rome and Stockholm, where we were able to approach different kinds of migrants. We conducted a total of 42 focus groups with 248 research participants. The focus group discussions were semi-structured, guided by a list of questions relating to participants’ past migration decisions, current migration experience, and future mobility decisions. In addition, 53 interviews with migrants were conducted and a total of 409 cleaned survey responses were retained for analysis.

The main finding of the study is that there is rarely one clear “determinant” of an individual’s intra-EU migration decision. Instead, motivations for migration and the choice of a specific destination country are more often than not complex and highly interrelated. As such, the decisions made by individual migrants are often based on a unique combination of factors that may be difficult to separate out and analyse in isolation from one another. We find that the considerations that shape intra-EU mobility are highly diverse and challenge the conventional understandings of migration within the EU28 as largely being determined by work and family. We find that specific factors relating to educational and career development opportunities, the desire for new experiences and challenges, preferences for particular cultures, lifestyles, political systems and social norms, and the pursuit of self-knowledge, are highly relevant in many intra-EU migrants’ mobility decisions.

In addition, it became evident through the research that the relevance, and relative weight, of different factors in an individual migrant’s migration decision-making often changes across the course of an individual’s life. Once a migrant has moved once, new factors may become more important when determining further migration decision-making, whilst the original reasons for a particular migration decision may have diminished or have no further relevance. Finally, our research provides valuable insights into the factors that shape the further mobility, and transitions between mobility and immobility, of both EU and non-EU born migrants, showing how migration decision-making processes and trajectories differ across groups.

Throughout the research it became clear that describing migration as being “for work”, “for study”, or “to join a partner or family” – major ways in which migration decisions are often categorised in existing data – is too simple. It fails to grasp how internationalized higher education and labour markets interact with contemporary mobility cultures, as well as with individual preferences regarding family and romantic relationships, work, climate, culture, politics and more. A common example is that the prospect of work or study in another country is not necessarily the reason an individual migrates, but rather provides a convenient opportunity or structure through which to pursue other, less tangible objectives or aspirations – for example, the desire to experience a different culture, or a sense of “wanderlust”.

It is therefore important to emphasise that what may be framed as the “reason” for an individual’s migration may obscure the multiple and interrelated motivations that underpin that migration decision. One way to untangle the complexity of migration decisions is to separate them into two parts: the individual’s decision to migrate and the choice of the destination country. These two decisions may be quite distinct, and both decisions can be based on multiple considerations. Moreover, the factors that are prioritised in the choice of destination may not be those that drove the decision to migrate. This is often the case for individuals who leave their countries of current residence for different work or study opportunities and then choose between different potential destination countries. In contrast, in cases where the decision to migrate is strongly determined by personal relationships or by specific career development opportunities, the decision to migrate and the choice of country are often one and the same – there may only be the decision to migrate, without an active choice of country. Yet, the recognition that the two decisions may be made separately has important implications for the understanding of intra-EU migration, and is important to consider further in both research and policymaking.

Read the working paper here.

Katrin Marchand is a postdoctoral researcher at UNU Merit, based at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance.

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