Refugees’ Self-selection into Europe: Who Migrates Where?

Cevat Giray Aksoy and Panu Poutvaara

Ifo Working Papers No. 289, January 2019


About 1.4 million refugees and irregular migrants arrived in Europe in 2015 and 2016. The authors model how refugees and irregular migrants are self-selected in terms of their skills and demographic characteristics. The authors provide the first large-scale evidence on reasons to emigrate, and the self-selection and sorting of refugees and irregular migrants for multiple origin and destination countries. The data used in this paper come from 2015 and 2016 Flow Monitoring Surveys carried out in Europe as part of the Displacement Tracking Matrix of the IOM, covering the demographic characteristics, intended destination countries and reasons for leaving their home countries for 19,000 refugees and irregular migrants aged 14 and over. 77 percent of respondents had emigrated mainly due to conflict or persecution, 21 percent for economic reasons or lack of basic services, and 2 percent due to natural disasters or other reasons, but there are large differences in reasons to emigrate across nationalities. Respondents were more likely to be single (70 percent), male (82 percent), and young (average age of 26). These data are combined with non-migration population data from Gallup World Polls to understand how migrant groups are self-selected from the source population in terms of observable characteristics and predicted income. Empirical results for individuals aged 25 to 64:

  • The probability of emigration is higher for men, younger people, and singles. Among men, singles are more likely to migrate, while married women are more likely to emigrate than single women, reflecting that women typically migrate with their spouse.
  • Overall, educated people are significantly more likely to migrate. Refugees and irregular migrants escaping major conflicts (both men and women) tend to be highly educated relative to the national average in their country of origin, consistent with the authors’ prediction that as the risk of being a victim of conflict increases, the probability of emigration becomes eventually increasing in human capital even if returns to human capital would be higher in the country of origin in the absence of conflict. Self-selection patterns between men and women are starkly different from countries with no or minor conflict, or if analyzing those whose main motivation to emigrate was not conflict or persecution: men do not differ much from non-migrants, while women are more educated that non-migrants. The authors posit that women’s positive self-selection in terms of education also from countries with no or minor conflict arises because of gender discrimination that depresses especially tertiary educated women’s job opportunities. Finally, refugees are significantly more likely to have secondary and tertiary level education compared with those who cite other reasons for leaving their countries.
  • Men who were in employment before migration are more likely to emigrate from countries suffering from major conflict but less likely to emigrate from countries with minor or no conflict, again in line with the theory that emigration from no or low conflict countries is motivated by lack of economic opportunities. The opposite is found for women: those who were in employment before migration are less likely to emigrate from countries suffering from major conflict but more likely to emigrate from countries with minor or no conflict. The authors suggest that this finding may reflect “highly educated women’s relatively bad labor market opportunities to which those women who choose to pursue employment react more strongly”.
  • Refugees and irregular migrants are strongly positively self-selected in terms of their predicted earnings in all country groups (that is, major conflict and minor or no conflict). Men are more strongly positively self-selected from all country groups compared to women.
  • Those with tertiary education are more likely to choose more unequal countries and those with secondary education more equal countries than those below secondary education, suggesting that education may play an important role when refugees and irregular migrants choose their destination. They also find that those with lower levels of education (educated to primary or secondary level) are relatively more likely to head for countries with lower unemployment rates, better migrant integration policies, faster asylum processes, easier access to the labor market for people who have successfully claimed asylum, and stronger social safety nets.

Border policies significantly affected the intended destinations of refugees and irregular migrants.