Barriers and opportunities for young immigrants in Europe

The EUMARGINS research project has found a wide diversity in the experiences of inclusion and exclusion among young immigrants, ranging from success in work and private life, to marginalisation and exclusion that can change over a course of a life time. Immigration status, class, ethnicity, religion, age and gender are all factors that interact and create segmentation, influencing inclusion or exclusion. Policy solutions should take account of the specifics of each country as well as immigrants’ demographic, cultural and socio-economic background, and target the most vulnerable groups in each country.

Young adult immigrants to EU Member and Associated States can feel included in some aspects of life, while at the same time experiencing exclusion in others. Factors that lead to feelings of exclusion can be at the macro level, such as national and EU policies, or micro-structures, such as neighbourhoods, schools, family networks and peer groups.

EUMARGINS analysed the life-stories of 250 young adult immigrants, or descendants of immigrants, in urban areas in seven European countries. These were Norway (Oslo), Sweden (Gothenburg), the United Kingdom (London), Italy (Genoa), France (Metz/Nancy), Spain (Barcelona) and Estonia (Tallinn).

A wide spectrum of immigrants participated in the research, from the elite to the unemployed, with a variety of educational and class backgrounds. Participants were recruited through universities, NGOs and other contacts to find examples of those experiencing the least or the most exclusion. Illegal immigrants were also included in the research. In addition, the project analysed data on the educational systems, labour markets, levels of socio-political activism, and the role of neighbourhoods and other networks for immigrants in these countries.

Although some factors causing exclusion were common to all seven countries, there were also factors specific to each country. The study provides an important means to understand common factors causing exclusion at European level as well as an objective observation of different national contexts.

Common factors

In all countries studied, the media and politicians tend to label immigrants as ‘different’ – this experience maintains a feeling of exclusion among young adults, even those who have higher levels of education or a high-status job. For example, in Estonia, even third generation descendants of immigrants reported being regarded differently.

Young immigrants in all countries experienced varying forms of social exclusion at school, such as teasing or bullying. This was less of an issue in areas where immigrant or ethnic minority background children were in the majority, but some immigrants avoid these schools as they are seen as a barrier to accessing higher education or satisfactory employment. In all countries, young immigrants reported having to perform better than the majority of young people to obtain the same results.

The most vulnerable young people were found to be those who had migrated on their own. Young immigrants not only cross boundaries into a new country, but also the boundary from childhood to adulthood. Rather than participate in political arenas which they do not regard as relevant, they tend to use informal methods, such as blogs or demonstrations. However, the project also analysed the ambivalent experiences of those young immigrants who participate in party politics.

Country-specific factors

Major differences between the countries studied ranged from assimilationist policies in France, to integrationist policies in Norway and Sweden, and multicultural policies in the UK. Multicultural or integrationist systems at school enable young immigrants to hold double or hybrid identities, while assimilationist policies do not facilitate this.

Access to social or political rights is related to the ease of obtaining legal residency or citizenship. The most liberal regimes on citizenship are found in Sweden and France; Norway and the UK are intermediate, while in Estonia, Italy and Spain it is most difficult to gain citizenship. However, citizenship alone does not automatically lead to a sense of belonging. Factors, such as low quality work or lack of employment, contribute to feelings of exclusion.

Labour market statistics showed clear segmentation in all countries, with specific ethnic backgrounds over-represented in certain jobs. Illegal immigrants find it easier to get work in informal economies, such as in Southern Europe, especially if they have low educational qualifications, but they are at risk of being exploited as cheap labour. Although illegal immigrants find it harder to get work in countries with a lesser developed secondary market, such as Norway and Sweden, for legal immigrants their participation in the labour market is higher and they are ensured social protection.

Policy recommendations

Policy solutions should take account of the specifics of each country, including citizenship legislation, migration policies, integration policies, educational systems and labour markets. They must also take account of immigrants’ demographic, socio-economic and socio-cultural characteristics, and target the most vulnerable groups in each country. Recommendations for policy makers in education, employment, migration and citizenship include:

  • Provide early language learning and language support as this is key to better integration and educational attainment.
  • Strengthen school links with parents, for example employ special link workers with knowledge of the particular ethnic community to bridge the gap.
  • Provide more resources to schools with high proportions of pupils from immigrant backgrounds.
  • Create urban planning and housing policies to counter residential segregation which leads to school segregation.
  • Implement efforts to tackle workplace discrimination and encourage employers to take on young immigrants. In certain countries, efforts are needed to ensure young immigrants do not end up in the irregular labour market with poor social rights.
  • Enable faster accreditation and broader recognition of prior vocational or education achievements of immigrants.
  • Young immigrants need to be better informed about their rights by anti-discrimination bodies and trade unions.
  • Governments need to improve monitoring of discrimination by employers.
  • Provide platforms for open dialogue among young people from a range of backgrounds along with an array of stakeholders. This enables young migrants to convey their concerns to a wider public audience, thereby helping to reduce existing stereotypes of particular immigrant groups.
  • The EU should use success stories to depict young immigrants positively, and regard them as a resource in an ageing Europe, to counteract tendencies to blame immigrants for being a welfare burden.

EUMARGINS – On the margins of the European Community – Young adult immigrants in seven European countries (duration: 1/10/2008 – 30/9/2011). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 3 "Major trends in society and their implications", Research area 3.2 "Societal trends and lifestyles". Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Katrine Fangen,