Past Migration Inertia and New Mobility Paradigm Between Southern and Northern Europe

By Birgit Glorius and Josefina Domínguez-Mujica

European internal south-north migration increased significantly during the recent economic and financial crisis. However, this phenomenon needs to be regarded in the context of general shifts in European internal mobility, which result from modernisation processes and embedded in the regulatory frame of European mobility and residence.


Since the onset of the economic and financial crisis, the European internal migration has changed significantly. While South European countries had historically received immigrants more than sent out emigrants, and their populations were said to be reluctant towards mobility, emigration numbers increased considerably after the start of the global financial crisis in 2008. This has been especially significant among those young and well educated nationals, who are leaving their home countries and nurturing the fear of a potential brain drain.

The youth mobility topic is positioned – among others – in the context of a discussion on Europe needing a strong young generation. It is known that the profile of this young people varies within Europe and that the socio-demographic characteristics of the youth are inextricably linked to the differentiated demographic and migratory transition of the different countries. Since 2008, the model of Southern European migration includes a new stage when, despite the difficulties inherent to the availability of the statistical information on emigration, the databases allow us to get some evidence on the geographical mobility from Mediterranean countries, especially among skilled young adults. This phenomenon has attracted the attention of scholars in countries of both origin and destination of emigrants, and has been interpreted as a new juncture in the migratory transition of Southern Europe.

Southern Europe, referring to Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece, shares some features with regards to the political integration into the European Union, the development of the welfare state and the demographic and migration evolution. The four countries have maintained a particular migratory relationship with other European countries, especially with Northern and Western nations. During the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century an intense movement of labour emigration took place from South to North, even though this flow notoriously decreased after the oil crack, when many emigrants returned home. In the 1980s the European Union enlargement process had important migratory consequences. With the exception of Italy, one of the constituent’s states of the European Union (ECSC) – as signatory of the Rome Treaty (1957) – the process of integration for Greece, Spain and Portugal (1981 in the case of the first, and 1986 in the second and third), had important repercussions in the increase and diversification of migrations between both groups of countries inside Europe.

According to EUROSTAT, the number of immigrants moving from Italy to United Kingdom in 2015 was 3,995 while immigrants from United Kingdom to Italy accounted for 29,712.

Since the nineties, the emigration and return of workers began to have double directions, not only from South to North but also from North to South, as a consequence of the strengthening of businesses, investments and professional training, with a gradual consolidation of the free movement of persons within the European Union (Schengen Agreement, Maastricht Treaty, and the Treaty of Lisbon). At the same time, two important flows were added to the mix: the stream of Northern and Western lifestyle migrants searching for retiring in coastal areas of Southern Europe – a better “place in the sun” – and the university students benefitting from the European exchange programmes, such as Erasmus or Leonardo da Vinci, in the framework of the Bologna Process and the consolidation of the European Higher Education Area. As a consequence, human mobility acquired a greater complexity generating a space of flows further encouraged by the informational technology revolution and the connectivity between multiple locations at different socio-spatial levels, some of the most outstanding globalisation features. For example, according to the data compiled by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (Spain), the number of British residing in Spain in 2015 (283,243) is higher than the number of Spaniards residing in the United Kingdom (91,316), although it is more balanced in the case of Germany – with 130,270 Spaniards residing in Germany and 130,911 Germans residing in Spain. According to EUROSTAT, the number of immigrants moving from Italy to United Kingdom in 2015 was 3,995 while immigrants from United Kingdom to Italy accounted for 29,712.

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The evolution of the multiple mobility linkages between Southern and Northern Europe was additionally reinforced by the economic context of the twenty first century. During the cycle of economic expansion, up to 2007, Southern Europe exerted a remarkable migratory attraction, drawing migrants from all over the world, but notably from Central and Eastern European countries that joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007. However, as a consequence of the economic and financial crisis and labour market maladjustments, immigration and migration return flows coalesced with new emigration trends, especially of those young adults either unemployed or dissatisfied with their job and career prospects. With the exception of Italy, these Southern nations1 returned to negative migration rates during some periods of the economic crisis, playing the role of gateways to Europe for labour immigrants coming from Eastern Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa. At the same time, they could not sustain the public debt and needed to receive international financial assistance since 2010 and 2011. The situation was particularly severe in the subsequent years with the constraints of public funds and the destruction of employment, leading to a sharp increase of unemployment (fig. 1).



In parallel, emigration numbers from Southern European countries increased steadily (tab. 1), especially the emigration of young adults. This phenomenon has received increasing attention from mass media and scholars, who are currently debating whether this new stage in the migratory history of Southern Europe is a structural phenomenon (in words of Russell King witnessing “the return to the Center-Periphery dynamic”), or must be considered ephemeral, in the context of the situation. Nowadays, it is appropriate to think about this issue, analysing the dimension and directions of migrations a few years after the crisis climax, and trying to assess the future implications for European South-North-South migrations.



On the basis of the disciplinary approach to human mobility as a sociological and geographical issue of the early twenty first century2 and of the trail of other paradigms as informational society,3 globalisation, transnationalism,4 liquid society,5 it is necessary to pay attention to the new trends in the European mobility distancing them from the past. The observatory frame must be opened to a new context where the human relations near and far, here and there have been reinforced and the real or fictitious disappearance of barriers to move have built strong networks. Only from this perspective can one understand the complexity of mobility between South and North: emigration, return, re-emigration, short stays, family and acquaintance visits, multi-residence, flows of tourists in both directions, etc. Therefore, we must explore not only economic or socio-political factors impelling emigration as the effect of the crisis in the employment destruction or the detachment from and lack of trust in Southern European institutions, but also other reasons such as lifestyle, family ties, etc. Looking at the emigration motives of young South European adults, they frequently state that migration is considered not only because of unemployment and poor career prospects, but also out of a sense of adventure and the aim of self-realisation. Migration is further fuelled by former experiences abroad – for example as exchange students – and by the concomitant build-up of social capital. Also, behavioural changes of age peers towards increased mobility can nurture individual migration decisions, constituting (temporary) migration of university graduates as “rite de passage”. Likewise, return migration cannot solely be explained either in a neoclassical framework, when return was conceptualised as planned (having reached economic targets) or because of failure at the migration destination.6 Drawing on the example of Spanish-German migration relations, we notice that after some years of strong emigration from Spain to Germany, the net migration rate between Germany and Spain in 2016 has been negative (more emigrants returning from Germany than moving or staying there). Journalistic inquiries revealed the importance of non-monetary, family related or emotional factors driving the migrants’ decisions to return. In a similar way, in a worldwide survey conducted by HSBC in 2016, Spain has been selected by 26,800 expatriate executives as the second best country to reside and work in order to its quality of life.

Concluding: As a consequence of a growing global and especially European interconnectedness, and resulting from societal modernisation processes, we can observe an increasing human mobility and establishment of multi-local livelihoods throughout Europe. In the course of the European integration process, where individual freedom of residence and work is considered to be the strongest outcome for the individual, more and more people expand their geographical frame of possible destinations when considering moves related to life-cycle passages. Studying abroad, sending children abroad, living in mixed marriages with multi-local households, or moving abroad upon retirement are parts of today’s European reality. However, those mobility features are based on reliable and stable regulatory frames, as regards to work, residence, healthcare and pensions. Therefore, European disintegration processes such as the BREXIT vote may have considerable effects on the European mobility scheme in the years to come, which will need further research and ongoing monitoring of mobility processes and features.

Featured Image: Incoming and outgoing traffic  at the Arc de Triomphe, Paris


About the Author

Dr. Birgit Glorius rer. nat, is Professor for Human Geography of East Central Europe at Chemnitz University of Technology. Her research interests and majority of publications are in the fields of International Migration, Demographic Change and Geographies of Education.

Josefina Domínguez-Mujica is Professor of Human Geography and leads the Research Group on Atlantic Societies and Spaces at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Spain). She is the Chairperson of the International Geographical Commission on “Global Change and Human Mobility (Globility)” and her research interests are in the fields of International Migration, Geography of Population and Urban Geography.


1. We have not considered the refugees’ displacement in this account.
2. The mobility turn has been outstandingly approached by Urry, Sheller, Montanari, Cresswell, Williams, Hall, etc.
3. As named by Castells.
4. Characterised inter alia by Schiller, Levitt, Faist and Vertovec.
5. As appointed by Bauman.
6. See the return typology of Cerase.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.