Dreaming of migration in times of the pandemic? What makes a migrant succeed in a changing Europe

Dreaming of migration in times of the pandemic? What makes a migrant succeed in a changing Europe

Aija Lulle and Hania Janta

Unrestricted and hassle-free mobility in Europe has temporarily been put on hold. However, mobility still forms a crucial part of human lives even under the pandemic – either in the form of dreaming about moving somewhere else while experiencing its opposite, being relatively immobile, or actually packing suitcases for yet uncertain times, when relocation will be possible.

Our recent research project  on mobility among young Europeans, based on 30 thousand survey responses and more than 800 in-depth interviews, attempted to explain what skills and competences help to build better lives and compete in markets for young migrants themselves migrating to and from: Germany, Sweden, UK, Latvia, Slovakia, Romania, Ireland, Italy and Spain.

Human capital is a grand concept in migration research and everyday debates. However, this is merely talk about economic gains and losses. Across the globe, governments say they want different kind of’ highly skilled immigrants, targeting skilled immigration, with ‘skills we need’. But what kind of skills and human capital we are after? What skills make better lives for individuals, businesses and countries? In era when migration is so highly politicised and notions of desirable ‘high-skilled’ versus non-desired migrants dominate pragmatic everyday discussions, the time is ripe to revisit the concept of human capital.

Lower-educated migrants learn skills
The usual divide of ‘higher-skilled’ and ‘lower-skilled’, so common in any migration debate, especially in the UK, is far from clear-cut. Lower-educated migrants are able to demonstrate remarkable achievements and growth, especially in terms of professional progression, self-esteem and work ethics. Yet their skills and competences are not fully recognised in migration debates and policies. Interestingly, a study reveals that women benefit far more from social and cultural skills they have learned during migration than men. Hence, our advice is that redefining of human capital in 21st century, should seriously consider skills that actually made young migrants succeed in their lives beyond formal education credentials.

Even the shortest mobility experiences yield results
How long is enough to learn new skills and move on in life? Even the shortest migration experiences give a boost to confidence, independence and resilience. Soft skills are increasingly more important when young people consider either to return ‘home’ or to move onwards to other countries. Advice? If individuals want to boost confidence and become more resilient as young adults, opting for a short-term migration might be a good investment in human capital.

Employers value foreign diplomas
In rapidly changing Europe, and looming Brexit, return migration is already happening. Knowledge hubs, which attract talented global minds, are emerging in Central and Eastern Europe, making some cities and countries more appealing for human capital gains. A study in Slovakia reveals that employers value formal qualifications gained abroad, particularly in the context of limitations to the national educational system. The managers consider market know-how, business intelligence and soft skills. Employers with personal exposure to international migration in particular recognise the experiences of returned migrants. Human capital circulates together with people in Europe and creates further opportunities. Here comes the takeaway for national and regional return or immigration policy planners and business visionaries: foreign-gained skills continue to attract and appreciate foreign-gained skills.

Places matter
It matters greatly where young migrants come from and where they currently live. There are possibilities and constraints to the transfer of human capital in the UK, Germany, Sweden or elsewhere. Our research shows that, some countries with regulated labour markets, such as Germany and Sweden, require investment in nationally-specific human capital in order to progress on the career ladder. This means that a rich skill portfolio may be considered less useful in certain locations and not be appreciated when migrants stay put. There is no one way of human capital recognition and gain across Europe.

There is not one ‘free European’ mobility. Regional patterns persist. Human capital can be wasted if an educated young person remains immobile in some Southern European countries due to a scarcity of qualified jobs. Human capital is rapidly gained abroad, especially by some professionals in academic and technological areas, and amplified with myriad of soft skills. In sum, if labour markets at home are rigid, and chances to pursue one’s profession and potential are very limited, staying immobile is a much higher risk to lose human capital than hitting the road abroad.

But uncertainties are huge, not only due to the pandemic. Another popular border will soon close; the prospect of Brexit has not vanished during the pandemic.  We cannot predict future or know exactly how migration would change. It is likely that many governments will rethink their policies on which the welcome migrant is in the light of the pandemic.   Yet, our research shows that young individuals, both skilled and less skilled, benefit from being mobile.


Aija Lulle is Lecturer in Human Geography at Loughborough UniversityHania Janta is Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Surrey.

Image: ‘Wait’ by CmdrFire is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0