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News announcement27 September 20185 min read

What drives international migration?

A new report by the JRC on international migration investigates the drivers of different dimensions of migration, helping policymakers to better understand current and potential future trends across the world.

A new report by the JRC on international migration investigates the drivers of different dimensions of migration
A new report by the JRC on international migration investigates the drivers of different dimensions of migration
© EU 2008

A new report by the JRC on international migration investigates the drivers of different dimensions of migration, helping policymakers to better understand current and potential future trends across the world.

Drivers of general migration

The study, "International migration drivers", confirms that the key drivers of international migration are mainly structural: economic development in countries of origin, migrants’ social networks and demographic change.

These variables are often interconnected, and reflect general stages of socio-economic development. For instance, low GDP and high fertility levels all describe an early stage of socio-economic development.

In middle income countries, rising GDP per capita is associated with higher migration levels. In high income countries, higher GDP per capita is associated with lower migration levels.

The lack of a significant relation in the case of low income countries shows that in early stages of development, small changes in GDP play only a minor role in affecting individual decisions to migrate.

The report indicates that in low and middle income countries high fertility rates do not result in higher likelihood for migration.

This could be attributed to the positive association between high fertility rates and poor economic conditions which represent hindering factors for migration.

Other variables such as geographic and cultural distance between countries, changes in GDP levels in destination countries and the level of education of the population in the country of origin offer explanations, albeit weaker, of why people migrate.

Scientists analysed these drivers using data amongst others from the World Bank and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), covering the period 1980-2015.

Drivers of migration to the EU

Using Eurostat data from 2009-2016 on residence permits for the EU, scientists analysed drivers for those moving for work, family or education reasons.

The presence of communities with a migration background in destination countries is the strongest driver across all legal channels.

Favourable labour market conditions in destination countries are also associated with a higher proportion of new residence permits for work-related reasons.

Migrating to the EU for education purposes was found to be influenced by higher unemployment in destination countries and larger geographical distances from the EU, which both tend to be associated with lower levels of migration.

Drivers of asylum seekers

This analysis is based on UNHCR data on new asylum applications from about 140 countries, lodged in both European and non-European countries over the period 1999-2016.

The scientists expected to find that conflicts, state fragility and exposure to intense armed conflicts result in higher numbers of asylum seekers in the countries included in the analysis.

While this is the case, other drivers are also significant.

Poverty in countries of origin is one example. Higher levels of poverty are associated with higher levels of asylum applications.

This is not wholly unexpected, as cases of conflict and state fragility can arise, cause and exacerbate situations of poverty.

The presence in the destination country of previous migrant communities is among the most relevant pull factors for where people file for asylum.

This is because members of the same community who are already established in the host country can reduce the risks and the cost of flight and incorporation after arrival, providing a shortcut for decision making in situations of stress.

Other factors, such as favourable economic conditions at destination, geographic vicinity and network effects are less significant drivers.

Drivers of individual intentions to migrate

Desire and preparation to move abroad, from low, middle and high income countries are based on the Gallup World Poll Survey between 2010 and 2015.

The drivers of individual intentions to migrate broadly mirror what is found in the analyses of general migration movements.

Networks and education are the most relevant drivers of potential migration.

The effect of migration policies

Despite the recent developments and improvements of data and indexes to measure policies, daunting challenges remain ahead to provide quantitative global answers regarding the effectiveness of policies.

The existing studies considered in this report tend to conclude that policies, albeit important, have a less prominent role affecting the overall scale of migration when compared to other migration determinants, such as economic drivers, social networks, cultural and geographical proximity.

Climate change and migration

It is difficult to find a solid, direct causal correlation between the climate change and migration.

Slow onset events linked with increasing temperature, reduced precipitation, drought events, and land degradation were found to be relevant in determining migration flows out of rural areas, especially in the least developed countries.

Fast onset events, such as floods, are found to affect communities by forcing them to relocate temporarily in the surrounding regions.

The response of the exposed population will depend on people’s adaptability to new conditions, the quality of institutions and the implementation of strategies aimed at pursuing sustainable development.


Both the EU Agenda on migration and the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, explicitly state the need to improve the management of migration by addressing the "root causes which cause people to seek a life elsewhere" and "mitigating the drivers and structural factors … that compel [people] to seek a future elsewhere".

Despite using different terms such as drivers, root causes, determinants and push and pull factors, the rationale behind these statements is the same: the management of migration requires a deep understanding of what determines migration in the first place.

This research builds a bridge between the complexity emerging from research and the need for digestible answers for policy.

Taking a quantitative approach, the scientists address this complexity by exploring how multiple drivers of migration change in relation to development stages of countries and different dimensions of migration.

The study establishes anchoring points built upon empirical evidence to support the discussions about the future of migration.

If policies are to address the structural factors driving international migration, such as poverty, unemployment and demographic trends, then a long-term approach is vital.

In the short-term policymakers could, however, seek to shape migration by providing legal channels which facilitate selectivity and optimise the overall benefits it brings.

Related Content

JRC report: International migration drivers. A quantitative assessment of the structural factors shaping migration


Publication date
27 September 2018