Exploring migrant mobility: From first arrival in EU border countries to mobility across Europe

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The news often features stories about asylum seekers and other migrants’ first arrivals in EU countries on the external border of the European Union, such as Italy, Spain, Croatia and Greece. But what happens after? Why do some migrants stay in their first country of arrival while others move to other European countries, and what are the consequences of mobility for migrants’ experiences? Through our work with the Protecting Irregular Migrants in Europe (PRIME) project, we are working to shed light on this. In this post, we describe what we know about the mobility trajectories and experiences of newly arrived migrants in EU border countries and how we’ll collect longitudinal data to uniquely expand this limited knowledge base.

Mobility Trajectories and Experiences

Initial arrival and subsequent movement

Some migrants arriving in the EU via entry in Italy, Spain, or Greece remain in these countries for an extended period, only leaving after concluding their asylum process or staying longer than intended due to various legal and logistical challenges. Others plan to remain in transit under the radar, often viewing these countries of first arrival as mere stepping stones to preferred destinations elsewhere in Europe. Other migrants, however, try to settle in the first country but leave after a few months, having been unable to obtain what they need or finding a reality different from their expectations.

Nationality, age, gender, and socioeconomic background significantly influence mobility decisions and outcomes. For example, young migrants may have different mobility patterns compared to older ones, and gender can affect the types of opportunities and risks migrants face. Additionally, migrants from other countries of origin receive different treatments and levels of exposure to discrimination.

The fluidity of legal status

The categories of regular and irregular status are less clear-cut and more fluid over time than usually portrayed in public discourse. Reports detail delays in asylum applications and fluctuating protection laws that contribute to changes in statuses. Our data partners continuously hear from service providers that many migrants repeatedly fluctuate between legal statuses, moving in and out of irregularity, often over extended periods, sometimes spanning 5-10 years. This fluidity can result from changes in laws, personal circumstances, and/or interactions with immigration authorities. For example, migrants might obtain temporary legal status, lose it, and sometimes regain it, leading to cycles of regularity and irregularity.

Legal status also changes as migrants move between European countries, particularly when they have submitted an asylum or other protection claim in their country of first arrival. This fluidity in legal status profoundly impacts migrants, influencing their conditions and vulnerability. Irregular status often means limited access to decent working conditions, appropriate income, essential services, and legal protection, exacerbating their precarious situation.

Additionally, the mobility of migrants across Europe can pose significant challenges to European immigration policies and protection systems. The varied immigration laws and practices across EU member states can lead to inconsistencies in the treatment and protection of migrants, complicating efforts to ensure uniform standards. This can strain resources, create administrative burdens, and necessitate greater coordination and cooperation between countries to effectively manage the movement and legal status of migrants.

Collecting new longitudinal data

As consortium members of the PRIME project, the Mixed Migration Centre Europe (MMC), the University of Warsaw, and the University of Zagreb are launching research to collect longitudinal, quantitative data to understand recently-arrived migrants’ access to essential services and rights, participation in the informal labour market, and how their conditions, experiences, and strategies evolve over time. A few of the key approaches that we will use and the aspects that they will allow us to analyse include the following:

  • Five key countries of arrival: We will conduct survey interviews in Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland and Croatia to understand how migration status, along with other individual characteristics, impacts migrant workers’ access to basic rights and services.
  • Regular and irregular migrants: We will conduct interviews with migrants of different legal statuses to gain a nuanced understanding of the unique challenges faced by irregular migrants and the benefits and other effects of regular status
  • Longitudinal: We will follow a selected group of respondents over an 18month to understand how conditions, experiences, and legal status change during this time and how this impacts individuals’ mobility throughout Europe during this period.

Mobility as a resilience strategy or negative coping mechanism?

Mobility can serve as a resilience strategy, enabling migrants to seek new opportunities and improve their conditions. Many migrants move to find better job opportunities or to improve their access to basic services and rights.

However, mobility can become a negative coping mechanism, whereby migrants, unable to fulfil their aspirations in one place, keep moving onward, further depleting their resources. In this case, mobility can lead to disempowerment and vulnerability, as migrants may be marginalised and exposed to the risk of exploitation. This can lead to a cycle of vulnerability and exclusion from services and legal protections.

Understanding the fluidity and interaction of these various components is essential for developing policies that can accommodate and respond to the dynamic nature of migrant workers’ legal statuses and mobility trajectories. Further, a deeper understanding of mobility as either a resiliences strategy or a contributing factor to vulnerabilities will shed light on how migrants adapt to changing circumstances, the decisions they make regarding movement, and their subsequent impact on migrants’ access to decent work, basic rights, and services. This we think, is crucial knowledge for crafting effective policy responses.



Roberto Forin is head of MMC Europe.

Giulia Bruschi is Data and Research Manager at MMC Europe.

Giulia Testa is Coordinator for Southern Europe at MMC Europe.