Migration out of Europe Research Paper

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International migration has been a key element in the development of the Western world since the industrial revolution. Its most profound influence has been on the peopling of the continents of North and South America and Australasia with emigrants of European stock and their descendants. This radical shift in population has been the focus of a wide range of studies by social scientists and historians. Much of the analysis addresses the questions of who migrated, when, and, above all, what motivated the migration. Much of the discussion has focused on what might be called ‘the age of mass migration,’ from the middle of the nineteenth century to World War I. One reason among many for concentrating on this period is that it is possible to observe migration behavior relatively free of the legal restrictions later introduced. Accordingly, the discussion here pays only brief reference to later periods.

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1. Patterns of Migration

Early settlements of Europeans were progressively established in different parts of the New World from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Between 1820 and 1920 about 55,000,000 Europeans set sail for these resource-abundant and labor-scarce destinations, and about three-fifths of them went to the USA. Earlier migration had been a trickle by comparison. Some of the early migrants were pioneer settlers seeking to establish new communities free from the religious or political persecution they faced in Europe. There were also streams of convicts and indentured servants sent to work on frontier farms and plantations. These were rapidly overtaken by the mounting numbers of free migrants, but it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that mass migration can really be said to have taken hold. Annual emigration rose from a steady flow of about 300,000 in the 1850s to 1870s, climbing steeply to exceed 1,000,000 at the turn of the century (see Fig. 1).

Migration out of Europe Research Paper

The emigrants in 1900 were certainly different from those in 1800. Early nineteenth-century migrant streams were often led by farmers and artisans from rural areas travelling in family groups, intending to acquire land and settle permanently at the New World’s frontier. In the late nineteenth century, while many still had rural roots, the emigrants from any given country were increasingly drawn from urban areas and from nonagricultural occupations. About two-thirds were men and the overwhelming majority travelled as single individuals rather than in family groups. Of migrants to the USA between 1868 and 1910, 76 percent were between the ages of 15 and 40. While the young and single might be regarded as inherently more adventurous and more mobile, these characteristics also reflect a deeper economic calculus. By emigrating as young adults they were able to reap the gains over most of their working lives. By moving as individuals they were able to minimize the costs of the move, including earnings foregone during passage and job search. And since the emigrants were typically unskilled they also had little country or technologyspecific human capital invested and hence stood to lose few of the rents from such acquired skills (except language). Finally, these young adults had the smallest commitment to family and assets at home.

As mass migration mounted so the composition by country of origin changed. In the middle decades of the nineteenth century the emigrants came from North-western Europe, chiefly from Britain, Ireland, Germany and the Scandinavian countries. But as Fig. 1 shows, the great surge in migration after 1880 was contributed largely by the rise in emigration from the countries of Southern and Eastern Europe. Notable among these so-called ‘new emigrant’ countries were Italy, Spain, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. Statistics such as these hide the enormous variations in rates of emigration (per thousand of the source population). The highest was from Ireland, with an average emigration rate of 13 per thousand per annum between 1850 and 1913. Countries such as Sweden and Norway had rates approaching five per thousand from 1870–1913, while the rates for Germany and Belgium were under two per thousand, and those for France were very small. Furthermore, the long term trends in emigration differed widely: from the 1880s rates of emigration declined sharply in Ireland, Germany, and Norway while they underwent a dramatic increase in Southern and Eastern Europe.

2. The Determinants of Emigration

Various hypotheses have been offered to explain variations in emigration across time and place, drawing on perspectives from economics, sociology, demography, and geography (Lowell 1987, Chap. 2). One important fact that such theories must explain is that, during the course of modern economic growth in Europe, national emigration rates often rose gradually at first from very low levels, rising more steeply to a peak and then gradually falling. Clearly, economic incentives were (and are) a key determinant of migration: in virtually every case where there is a net flow from one country to another it is from the relatively poor to the relatively rich country. New internationally-comparable real wage data for the late nineteenth century illustrate this. Average unskilled wage rates in 12 (Western) European countries were barely more than half those in the New World (weighted by proportion of emigrants). Recent analysis shows that wage ratios were an important determinant of emigration rates by decade and across countries. On average an increase in the New World real wage by 10 percent relative to that in Europe generated a rise in the emigration rate of 1.3 per thousand (Hatton and Williamson 1998, p. 43). But real wage ratios alone cannot explain why poor countries often had low emigration rates and why emigration often increased as development took place. Other influences must also be taken into account.

One factor is the poverty trap. As countries and regions industrialized, and as incomes rose, a larger share of potential migrants could afford to save up sufficient resources to finance the move and hence the number of emigrants increased. Thus, in its early stages, increases in emigration could be positively associated with an increase in wage rates at home (even though it narrowed the foreign home wage gap). A second factor is rapid population growth, producing large cohorts of young adults whose opportunities to inherit smallholdings or to enter into family businesses were limited. Recent analysis of crosscountry trends in emigration across Europe in the late nineteenth century finds strong evidence of these demographic effects and only limited evidence of the poverty trap (Hatton and Williamson 1998, p. 43). There is also some evidence that the more urban the country the higher the emigration—supporting the notion of greater mobility among urban populations.

3. Persistence and Volatility in Migration

Once established, migration streams perpetuated themselves as previous migrants provided new migrants with prepaid tickets for passage, food and shelter on arrival, and established immigrant networks to help gain access to job opportunities. This ‘friends and relatives effect’ proved to be a very powerful force in the late nineteenth century. Evidence from US immigration records suggests that as many as 90 percent of arrivals were traveling to meet a friend or relative who had previously emigrated. Recent estimates suggest that for each thousand migrants from a particular country, the friends and relatives effect ‘pulled’ between 20 and 100 further migrants each year, even when other factors such as relative wages are taken into account. Thus the larger the stock of previous emigrants, the greater would be the flow, and that flow would in turn lead to further flows.

Much of the literature has focused on this as the key element in determining mass migration. While social networks may have been the mechanism through which many individuals migrated, they also have an economic dimension. Not only did the friends and relatives effect reduce the costs and uncertainties of migration to the prospective migrant, it also eased the poverty trap. This also helps to explain different emigration patterns from countries at similar levels of development. In Ireland, the Great Famine effectively ejected a million migrants who formed a substantial migrant stock, particularly in the USA. Thus even the poorest Irish migrant would have benefited from the release of the poverty constraint, and Irish emigration declined as conditions in Ireland gradually improved. By contrast, in Italy emigration increased as the economy developed and the stock of previous emigrants grew.

Sharp year-to-year fluctuations in migration flows were often superimposed on these long-term trends. Some studies of annual movements in emigration suggest that business cycle conditions, especially in the destination country, were the key influence and that other influences (such as wages) were relatively unimportant. This has been interpreted to mean that migrants were driven by the ‘pull’ effects of opportunities in the New World, rather than the ‘push’ effects of conditions at home. Recent work has suggested that a specification along the lines of Todaro (1969), where both the wage and the probability of employment matter, can explain time series movements in emigration reasonably well. The proportionately larger effect of unemployment, particularly in the destination, reflects risk aversion on the part of potential migrants. The year-to-year volatility of migration can also be interpreted as reflecting the option value of waiting. Thus, even though it may be worthwhile to emigrate now, it may be better still to wait until conditions in the receiving country have improved (Hatton 1995).

4. Destination Choice and Return Migration

In the past, emigration streams from a given country were often dominated by one destination, for example, Scandinavian emigrants went almost exclusively to the USA. Consequently, choice among alternative destinations is less well understood. Choice of destination within a receiving country is associated with measures of regional income as might have been expected, and especially with the stock of previous migrants to that state region. But choice among countries involves additional factors such as cultural and linguistic affinity with the country of origin. Thus emigrants from Italy, Spain, and Portugal revealed much stronger preferences for South American countries such as Argentina and Brazil than did other European emigrants. Given these affinities and the pulling power of previous migrants, these streams persisted in spite of the income advantage of going instead to the USA. However, when new immigrant streams arose, such as that from southern Italy at the end of the nineteenth century, economic advantage carried more weight. Thus migrants from the north of Italy continued to favour South America over North America (despite their urban backgrounds) while those Italians from the rural south migrated in increasing numbers to the urban USA.

Although most migrants were permanent settlers, there were mounting flows of return migrants. By the end of the nineteenth century about a third of European migrants to the USA were returning, usually after a few years. Increasing destination wages relative to transport costs and falling voyage times contributed to the trend. But the upward trend in return migration owes most to the changing country composition of emigrants—particularly the growing share from Southern Europe. Many of these emigrants intended to return home and use their accumulated savings to establish families, and often to start farms or businesses. In such cases the outward flows were more male-dominated than where permanent settlement was the goal. While return migration strategies are not well understood one thing is clear: differences in rates of return migration are associated more with the country of origin than with the country of destination. Thus the high rates of return migration among southern Europeans at the turn of the century applied equally to those emigrating initially to North America and to South America.

5. Immigrant Assimilation

It has often been argued that immigrants faced discrimination and prejudice—factors which placed them under social and economic disadvantages and which may have made migration less attractive or encouraged return migration. The US Immigration Commission, which reported in 1911, argued that immigrants themselves, particularly the ‘new immigrants’ from Southern and Eastern Europe, were unable or unwilling to integrate into American society and that they lacked the skills and motivation to be successful in the labor market. Instead they crowded into ghettos and into unskilled occupations with little hope of upward mobility. Revisionist writers have argued instead that immigrant communities were not backward-looking and isolationist; rather, they provided a means though which immigrants could maintain their ethnic identity and benefit from social support networks at the same time as gaining access to the means of economic advancement (Bodnar 1985). A key issue is whether immigrants did suffer economic disadvantage and whether they caught up with the native-born as they acquired knowledge, skills, and experience in the American labor market. The literature on immigrant earnings in the postwar period (following Chiswick 1978) suggests that, on arrival, immigrants suffered a wage disadvantage relative to the native-born but that their wages grew faster and caught up with the native-born after 10 to 15 years. Recent analyses for immigrants at the turn of the century suggest that (contrary to an earlier view) a similar pattern can be found among immigrants who arrived as adults (Hatton and Williamson 1998, Chap. 7). Those who arrived as children suffered little or no disadvantage and second-generation immigrants often had higher earnings than the native-born. While the ‘new immigrants’ faced some economic disadvantages, much of this can be associated with limited education and English language proficiency—disadvantages which diminished over time.

6. The End of the Age of Mass Migration

Migration decisions were also influenced by policy and or prejudice towards immigrants in the receiving country. Sometimes this worked to the advantage of the immigrant, for example, subsidized passages were offered to British emigrants to Australia and to (northern) Italian emigrants to the state of Sao Paolo (Brazil). Sometimes migrants were discouraged by legal or administrative obstacles (such as non-British migrants to Australia before 1945). But immigration restrictions grew gradually in the early twentieth century as immigration itself increased and became associated with growing inequality. The US Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924, which introduced immigration quotas, are often seen as putting an abrupt end to the age of mass migration. However, it is likely that immigration from some European countries (those on the downswing of the emigration cycle) would have diminished anyway. The world depression of the 1930s, which was particularly severe in the New World, discouraged immigrants from most European countries except those fleeing totalitarian regimes.

In the period following World War II, emigration revived and grew as prosperity returned to the world economy. But it did not match the heights of the decade before World War I. One reason is that migration chains, which had been such an important factor in the earlier period, had been broken by 30 years of war and economic upheaval. Emigration from Europe grew over the following decades but not as fast as it had in the 50 years before 1914. This was partly due to continuing restrictions on immigration, but it also reflects the rapid growth of living standards in Europe and their convergence on those of destination countries such as the USA. As a result, Europeans declined as a proportion of immigrants into the USA, from 66 percent in the 1950s to 10 percent in the 1980s. This period also marked the transition of Europe from a region of emigration to one of immigration. At the same time countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean entered a phase comparable with that of Europe in the age of mass migration.


  1. Bodnar J 1985 The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America. University of Indiana Press, Bloomington, IN
  2. Chiswick B R 1978 The effect of Americanisation on the earnings of foreign-born men. Journal of Political Economy 86: 897–921
  3. Hatton T J 1995 A model of UK emigration, 1870–1913. Re iew of Economics and Statistics 7: 407–15
  4. Hatton T J, Williamson J G 1998 The Age of Mass Migration. Oxford University Press, New York
  5. Lowell B L 1987 Scandina ian Exodus: Demography and Social
  6. Development of 19th Century Rural Communities. Westview Press, Colorado, CO
  7. Todaro M P 1969 A model of labor migration and urban unemployment in less developed countries. American Economic Re iew 59: 138–48
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