What the literature tells us about perceptions about migration to the EU

Perceptions of Europe are often seen as a driving force of migration decisions and movements to the EU, and not seldom linked to discussions about (mis)information that result in wrong conceptions about Europe. This article summarises current evidence about the link between perceptions and migrations to the EU. We further highlight systematic gaps in the current evidence to invite a broader, more integrative and diverse investigation of migration experiences in host societies, countries of origin and by migrants themselves.

Migration-related perceptions can be seen as sense-making tools that help to frame and understand migration experiences leading to more or less correct assessments of the EU as migration destination. These perceptions are created and transported by a multitude of actors: migrants at various stages of their migration trajectory, host communities, policy makers on local, national, EU and global levels, non-governmental organisations, first-line practitioners in areas such as health, education, housing and law enforcement as well as media online and offline.

To understand how exactly migration-related narratives and perceptions influence migration decision-making is a primary objective of the PERCEPTIONS project. A first step to this understanding was the review of existing knowledge about perceptions, narratives and migration. To this purpose we collected and reviewed literature and reports published from 2014 forward. Our analysis is based on 221 documents that directly addressed migrants’ perceptions of the EU between 2014 and 2019. The following article provides highlights of the findings; the full review can be found in the public report; a summary of further results can be found in the first PERCEPTIONS brochure.

State of the literature

Our corpus demonstrates that the interest in the topic of perceptions increased strongly over the years: only 6% of relevant papers were published in 2014, compared to 16% in 2017, 24% in 2018 and 32% in 2019. This suggests a growing interest in the personal experiences and perspectives of migrants. The majority of empirical work used a qualitative approach (45% of documents) against only 13% of quantitative and 14% of mixed methods approached. The remaining 28% were conceptual and theoretical papers. The regional spread investigated in the papers was broad with 88 unique countries and regions, although with a strong representation of Africa, Middle East and the Americas as origins. In contrast, we found a dearth of studies focused on migration from Russia, Asia and the Pacific Region indicating a gap in the current migration literature. The corpus addressed a wide range of themes from lived experiences of migrants in the EU to migrant agency and resilience of migrants, perceptions and misperceptions of the journey, narratives of home, migrant networks as well as intermediaries and brokers.

Perceptions of migrants

Perceptions of the EU tend to be ambiguous and speak of a differentiated picture towards specific countries which inform migration decisions. While the EU overall is often equated with better economic and educational prospects, higher chances of security and protection from prosecution as well as lower instances of corruption and crime, migrants are also aware of problematic aspects such as an increase in border security, difficulties assimilating and integrating as well as poorer quality of life in general. Choices for individual countries as transit or destination are based on more specific perceptions (e.g., Germany is seen to offer good economic opportunities, a relatively welcoming approach to migrants and offers of family reunification legislation, Italy may be chosen due to weaker immigration controls which may enable migrants to work without documents, while the Netherlands is appreciated due to tolerance particularly for LGBTQ+ refugees).

These findings suggest that perceptions can drive migration decisions in a very direct and strategic way, although the actual route and destination are often impacted by external circumstances (political, legal, etc.), creating conflicts between expectations and realities.

Part of the reviewed literature reports on specific ‘push and pull factors’, i.e., aspects that lead to decision to leave and decisions about destinations. Our review identified recurring factors: economic considerations, political/security related, social improvement, family, cultural and environmental considerations. Except one, all were mentioned as push and pull factors. Political/security issues emerged as the main push factor, followed by economic and cultural issues, while economic and social factors seem paramount pull factors. Environmental concerns only appeared as push factor demonstrating consequences of environmental deterioration.

Perceptions in host countries

Ambiguity was also present in migration-related perceptions in host communities. 41% of sources indicated mixed (positive and negative) attitudes towards migrants and migration compared to 23% mentioning explicitly negative perceptions and only 1% an explicitly positive stance. This picture confirms the complexity as well as divisions of host communities across the EU on migration. Positive perceptions centred mostly around expressions of solidarity with refugees and migrants and the need to uphold human rights. Negative attitudes centred around perceived threats such as adding to economic pressures in the country, cultural conflicts and security threats (e.g., fears of increased crime and terrorism). Negative host perceptions also contained xenophobic and stereotyping narratives using terms like ‘flood’ or ‘wave’, even if levels of immigration were low.

Gaps in the current knowledge about perceptions

The review of current work on migration-related perceptions highlights a number of gaps in the current knowledge. The first pertains to a lack of knowledge about specific migrant demographics, particularly minors, people with disabilities or from LGBTQ+ communities. Moreover, we found that voices other than migrants and host societies are lacking, most critically from first-line practitioners (e.g., in the health, education or housing sector or in the areas of law enforcement and border security). Similarly, threat narratives seem to be driven primarily by perspectives of host societies, while perspectives of transit countries as well as migrants’ host communities remain largely unexplored.

Also, most work on perceptions to date has employed qualitative approaches. We see considerable benefits in a greater role of quantitative approaches, especially the examination of potential causal effects of perceptions on migration decision-making.

The review of perceptions further revealed a growing ‘securitization approach’ to migration and a considerable focus on ‘migration as a threat’. This hints towards an overall change in the narrative about migration which needs to be reflected critically – not only in terms of its validity but also in terms of its effect on migrants and their decision to immigrate to the EU.

Overall, our work highlights the complex landscape of perceptions across the various groups involved in and affected by migration to the EU. More importantly, it also highlights the need to broaden, expand and diversify considerations of migration-related perceptions to better understand effects on migration decisions and experiences by all stakeholders, including but not limited to host communities, countries of origin and the various groups of migrants themselves.


Author: P. Saskia Bayerl, CENTRIC (Sheffield Hallam University), UK


This article is based on Deliverable 2.2 and the Workpackage 2 brochure of the PERCEPTIONS project.


Perceptions, narratives, sense-making, migrant decision-making, push factors, pull factors, literature review

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