Migration is a hotly debated and politically charged topic at the heart of the EU’s political agenda. Yet despite all the attention, it remains a surprisingly poorly understood phenomenon. In the EU Policy Lab, we have been trying to contribute to a nuanced and forward-looking discussion on the subject. We developed future migration scenarios together with a set of engagement processes to help the policy, academic and civil society communities come together and debate migration issues in systemic and non-divisive ways. In our 2017 policy workshop, we tried to debunk some commonly held myths about migration and integration. Today, we are releasing a study that emerged from our collaboration with Hein de Haas and Simona Vezzoli, migration experts from the University of Amsterdam: European Migrations: Dynamics, Drivers, and the Role of Policies.


We believe that effective migration management needs to be underpinned by a realistic understanding of the drivers and dynamics of migration. It should also systematically incorporate lessons learnt about the effects and effectiveness of past migration policies. The study first draws some important policy implications from the analysis of the evolution of European post-war migrations. It looks at the effects of internal border opening in Europe on the one hand and the consequences of convergence of immigration rules and visa requirements on the other. For example, the data shows that fears of mass migration following the 2004 EU enlargement turned out to be largely unwarranted, as migration did stabilize after an initial increase. The author suggests that under open-border circumstances, migration tends to consolidate at lower levels when potential migrants gain trust that borders will remain open. This can make them postpone or even cancel migration plans and it increases the likelihood of their return when economic conditions become less favourable. With regards to immigration from non-EU countries, the development of common immigration rules and the alignment of visa regimes have not succeeded in dramatically decreasing non-EU immigration. To the contrary, they can partly explain the falling return ratios to non-European origins and increase in irregular migration flows.


Based on the insight that migration is driven by structural factors that often lie beyond the reach of migration policies, the second part of the study looks closely at structural factors that shape migration in both origin and destination countries. Two key areas are analysed in more detail: the level of development in countries of origin and the structure of labour demand in destination countries. It has now been widely documented that development in origin countries tends to initially increase aspirations and capabilities to migrate. In destination countries, the high correlation between migration and business cycles demonstrates that the structure of labour demand is among the most important migration determinants. Also family migration, which constitutes a significant proportion of immigration to the EU, is often an indirect consequence of labour migration. Migration policies in EU countries have struggled to reconcile demand for labour with the wish to reduce inflows and to encourage migrant returns and circulation. The demand for high- and low-skilled immigrant labour is structurally embedded in modern economies and can be sustained even at times of growing unemployment. It is likely that there will always be low-status manual jobs that the locals do not want to do as well as demand for workers in the highly skilled sector where the domestic education systems are not generating enough qualified labour.


The evaluation of both intended and unintended effects of migration policies has been at the forefront of Hein de Haas’ research for years and is of crucial importance for EU migration policymaking. In the study, he explains that migration restrictions may not succeed in limiting or better controlling migration flows because they can rather reorient migration flows both geographically and towards other regular or irregular channels (e.g. from a labour migrant towards a family migrant or an asylum-seeker). Migration policies can also affect the timing and volume of migration (e.g. ‘now or never’ migration) and encourage permanent settlement by interrupting migrants’ circulatory movements and by discouraging their return for fear of not being able to come back.


The study concludes with an outline of areas to be prioritised in future research: 1) the links between socioeconomic and labour market policies and migration patterns and 2) the impacts of non-migration policies on migration patterns and trends. Understanding of the latter is particularly important in the current context as we see migration agendas expanding into policy areas such as foreign and security policy, trade, development aid, agriculture or fisheries.

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