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Migration in southern Europe: similarities and differences

Martin Baldwin-Edwards Dr. Eugenia Markova

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Since the mid-1990s, scholars have noted many similarities regarding the evolution of migration and related policies in Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain. However, over the last decade several policy areas have exhibited increasing divergence, casting doubt on the so-called "southern European model" of migration.

Southern Europe has had different experiences with migration. While some states increasingly developed into immigration countries from the 1970s onward, emigration still dominates in others today. (© picture-alliance, imageBROKER)

Defining southern Europe

The geographical definition of southern Europe (e.g. that made by the UN) is both too wide (it includes much of the Balkans) and also too exclusive (it excludes Cyprus) to be useful in comparative methodology regarding migration and migration policy. What is required is a definition that includes countries with broadly similar geopolitical situations with respect to migration, along with similar economic and other structural parameters. This excludes all of the former communist bloc within the Balkan region, along with small island nations (Malta and Cyprus) owing to the phenomenon of large-scale emigration and immigration associated with small islands. This leaves us with Spain, Italy and Greece – and arguably Portugal, despite its different geography (it does not have a Mediterranean sea border): these four countries appear in most literature as the archetypal southern European countries.

The concept of a "southern European model" of migration

From the mid-1990s onward, there were attempts to summarize within a single model the similarities of the four southern European states mentioned above, in terms of their migration experiences and their handling of immigration. The earliest comparisons of southern European countries’ migration management – made by geographer Russell King inter alia – focused on the “migration turnaround”, or the transition from mass emigration to mass immigration. The commonality across southern Europe was that “temporary” labour migration to northern Europe had started in the late 1950s, accelerated during the 1960s, and after the oil shocks of 1973 and 1974 many of these workers returned to their home countries. Thus, a mass inflow of their own returning citizens was a feature common to Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Insofar as economic structure is concerned, the model developed by Russell King and others focuses on low-wage employment, high unemployment alongside under-employment throughout the 1960s and 1970s –the very conditions that promoted mass labour emigration of their population. This was a period of high capital accumulation and GDP growth, partly owing to the emergence of economic sectors with higher productivity. In a second stage, coinciding with mass return of their own citizens in the late 1970s and 1980s, the model posits a reduced labour supply and higher wages – especially in high-productivity sectors. The third stage of the model claims that by the late 1980s indigenous workers eschewed the predominantly low-paid employment in low-productivity sectors – preferring further years of study, or voluntary unemployment while waiting for good employment opportunities (often in the public sector, arranged through clientelist connections) – leaving the low-productivity sectors short of workers prepared to work for the available low wages. Here is where the attraction of cheap foreign labour emerges, and is eagerly taken up by a very large number of employers.

Thus far, the model is broadly supported by the data, although some details can be disputed (such as the actual mechanism by which stage 3 emerged, or the absence of a high-productivity sector in Greece). However, what is missing from the model are three central structural issues: the lack of any sort of adequate immigration management by the state, the emergence of very large informal or “underground” economies, and the co-existence of rigid, highly bureaucratic regulations of employment alongside near-zero labour market inspections and enforcement. These parameters were taken up by other researchers, and used to supplement the model adumbrated by King and others.

Migration expert and co-author of this text, Martin Baldwin-Edwards, noted in the late 1990s that southern European countries signed up to the restrictive immigration and border controls of Schengen, while not possessing the same history of northern EU countries in protecting immigrants’ rights and promoting socio-economic integration. Thus, there was an explicit danger that new migration management of southern Europe would be very different from that of northern Europe – focused on control and ignoring long-term issues of immigrant integration. Baldwin-Edwards also addresses the defining characteristics of immigrants in southern Europe in the mid-1990s, noting the great diversity of nationalities and educational levels, alongside general illegality (entry/residence/ work) and the role of expanding informal economies hosting irregular immigrants. Economist and sociologist Emilio Reyneri, similarly, takes up the central role of the informal economy in attracting mass immigrant inflows, and creating an economic structure that is ultimately counterproductive. While employing cheap, low-skilled irregular immigrants as a survival strategy, firms possessed neither the capacity nor the incentive to modernize with new technology and better training of their workforces: across southern Europe, this effectively guaranteed declining economic competitiveness within the highly competitive Eurozone.

The massive presence of “sans papiers” workers became a structural feature across southern Europe by the late 1990s, and led to repeated mass regularizations – often, of the same people who had lapsed back into irregularity. Thus, a distinctive part of southern European immigration management emerged with frequent and sometimes continuous legalization policies, in order to deal with the problem of irregular immigrants who were actually needed and employed on the territory.

The impact of the Eurozone economic crisis

By the time of the Eurozone crisis (from 2010), doubts were emerging about the continued validity of the southern European model of immigration management. Specifically, increasing divergences were observed in the characteristics of immigration flows, in the evolution of immigration policies, and in labour market incorporation. Moreover, two countries had already appeared as outliers from the southern European model – namely, Greece and Portugal. Greece had always seemed a poor fit, with its predominantly Albanian immigration and exclusionary state policies: these showed little sign of changing, while the other countries were modernizing and actively trying to keep immigrants in a legal state during difficult economic times. Portugal, on the other hand, had emerged as an outlier in terms of its better incorporation of immigrants within the labour market – with a very low rate of over-qualified immigrant workers in bad jobs (while Greece was the worst in the OECD), and good representation of immigrants in education, social services and administration. This was in contrast to the other three countries, where immigrants worked predominantly in the agriculture and manufacturing sectors.

But what has happened since then? Of course, the major event dominating debates on migration and migration policy making was the so-called “migration crisis” of 2015 – although its antecedents were clear and the phenomenon of mass refugee inflows was predicted by European intelligence services as far back as 2012. The outcome of the crisis was that an informal political agreement was reached with Turkey, along with a bilateral agreement of Italy with Libya, to prevent asylum-seekers and other migrants from reaching the coasts of Greece and Italy. Thus, the border management aspect of immigration policy in these two countries was set partly through the Schengen Border Code but primarily via the agreements with Turkey and Libya – which are not part of EU law or official policy. Exclusionary and aggressive border controls are now a common feature across Greece, Italy and Spain with strong evidence of illegal pushbacks to Turkey being investigated by the European Parliament. Moreover, Frontex is also caught up in the allegations of illegal conduct, and at this time there is no effective oversight of its activities.

Turning to labour market changes since 2009, there has been increasing divergence. Despite a common problem of Eurozone debt and economic adjustments, changes in employment structure by skill level over the period 1995-2015 show Greece with very high growth in low-skill work, fairly high growth in medium skill work, and the lowest growth in the OECD for high skill work. Italy, too, shows fairly high growth in low skill and medium skill work, and poor growth in high skill work. Spain and Portugal, on the other hand, do well with growth in high-skill employment. In Italy, the growth in low-skill work after 2008 was mostly taken up by female migrants, in the care and domestic work sectors with employment by households. Similarly, in the productive sectors (in this case, agriculture and construction) immigrant workers as a group actually benefited from the economic crisis: their share of employment in those sectors doubled after 2005. The diverging outcomes of the economic crisis for immigrants across southern Europe can be exemplified when looking at Italy and Spain: unlike in Spain, in Italy the risk of unemployment for migrants is low, but the probability of low-skilled and low-paid employment is high.

Labour immigration management has also diverged significantly. Spain has developed a well-managed labour immigration system for lower skilled work, including bilateral recruitment agreements for temporary work, which are linked with migration management cooperation (such as returns and readmissions). It is also the only country in the region to have an explicit and separate national scheme for highly skilled migrants (as opposed to the unsuccessful EU Blue Card scheme) since 2013, although its restrictionism is not popular with highly skilled potential migrants. Portugal continues with its previous good track record of immigration management, with emphasis on socio-economic integration that sets it apart from Greece, Italy and Spain. In Italy, the massive economic gap between North and South seems to have grown, with the South showing high demand for immigrants in unskilled, unstable, poorly paid and unprotected socially penalizing work. In the North, the probability of immigrants being unemployed is higher than for natives, implying that there is little demand for new labour immigration of any skill level. Across Italy, the possibility of immigrant workers following a path of innovation and reskilling is extremely low, distinguishing Italy from both Portugal and Spain. Finally, Greece has shown the worst labour market performance across the region, and – as in the South of Italy – immigrants are engaged for dirty, poorly paid work that Greek workers, even in serious economic depression, refuse to undertake. With the aftermath of refugee inflows since 2015, Greece needs no labour immigration other than very small numbers of skilled and highly skilled personnel: there is therefore no development of labour immigration policy. Indeed, Greece continues down the road that it chose explicitly in 1991 – of exclusionary border controls and restrictive labour market practices that merely encourage irregularities and illegality.

Quellen / Literatur

Arango, J. & C. Finotelli (2009): ‘Spain’. In M. Baldwin-Edwards & A. Kraler (eds), REGINE: Regularisations in Europe. Amsterdam: Pallas Publications, Amsterdam University Press, pp. 443-457.

Baldwin-Edwards, M. (1997): ‘The Emerging European Immigration Regime: Some Reflections on Implications for Southern Europe’. Journal of Common Market Studies, 35(4), pp. 497-519.

Baldwin-Edwards, M. (1998): ‘Where free markets reign: Aliens in the twilight zone’. South European Society & Politics, 3(3), pp. 1-15.

Baldwin-Edwards, M. (2002): ‘Southern European Labour Markets and Immigration: A Structural and Functional Analysis’, Working Paper No. 5, Mediterranean Migration Observatory, UEHR, Panteion University, Athens.

Baldwin-Edwards, M. (2009): ‘Greece’. In M. Baldwin-Edwards & A. Kraler (eds.), REGINE: Regularisations in Europe. Amsterdam: Pallas Publications, Amsterdam University Press, pp. 297-329.

Baldwin-Edwards, M. (2012): ‘The southern European “model of immigration”: a sceptical view’. In M. Okolski (ed.) (2012), Europe: the continent of immigrants. Trends, structures and policy implications. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 149-157.

Baldwin-Edwards, M., B. Blitz & H. Crawley (2018): ‘The politics of evidence-based policy in Europe’s ‘migration crisis’, (Introduction to Special Issue). Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45 (12), pp. 2139-2155.

Baldwin-Edwards, M. & D. Lutterbeck (2018): ‘Coping with the Libyan migration crisis’. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 45 (12), pp. 2241-2257.

Baldwin-Edwards, M. (2021): ‘Managing foreign labour migration recruitment’. Chapter 8, in OSCE: Handbook on Establishing Effective Labour Migration Policies. Vienna: OSCE (in press).

Cook, M. (2018): ‘Portugal’s immigration and integration policies: a case apart?’ International Migration & Integration, 19, pp. 771–789.

Dzhengozova, M. (2009): ‘Portugal’. In M. Baldwin-Edwards & A. Kraler (eds.), REGINE: Regularisations in Europe. Amsterdam: Pallas Publications, Amsterdam University Press, pp. 419-425.

Fellini, I. (2017): ‘Immigrants’ labour market outcomes in Italy and Spain: Has the Southern European model disrupted during the crisis?’ Migration Studies, 6(1), pp. 53-78.

Fellini, I. & G. Fullin (2018): ‘Employment change, institutions and migrant labour: the Italian case in comparative perspective’. Stato e Mercato, 113, pp. 293-330.

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King, R. & I. Konjhodzic (1996): ‘Labour, employment and migration in Southern Europe’. In J. Van Oudenaren (ed.), Employment, Economic Development and Migration in Southern Europe and the Maghreb. Santa Monica CA: Rand Corporation, pp. 7-106.

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Reyneri, E. (2003): ‘Immigration and the Underground Economy in New Receiving South European Countries: Manifold Negative Effects, Manifold Deep-rooted Causes’. International Review of Sociology/ Revue Internationale de Sociologie, 13(1), pp. 117-143.

Ruspini , P. (2009): ‘Italy’. In M. Baldwin-Edwards & A. Kraler (eds.), REGINE: Regularisations in Europe. Amsterdam: Pallas Publications, Amsterdam University Press, pp. 351-369.

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  1. King & Konjhodzic (1996); King et al. (1997).

  2. Baldwin-Edwards (1997).

  3. Baldwin-Edwards (1998), p. 2.

  4. Reyneri (2003).

  5. Baldwin-Edwards (2002).

  6. Dzhengozova (2009); Arango & Finotelli (2009); Baldwin-Edwards (2009); Ruspini (2009).

  7. Baldwin-Edwards (2012).

  8. Typically, “bad jobs” are low-pay, low-skill, precarious, poor working conditions and/or lacking promotion and training possibilities.

  9. Ulusoy et al. (2019).

  10. Moreno-Lax et al. 2021; Baldwin-Edwards et al. (2018); Baldwin-Edwards & Lutterbeck (2018).

  11. Idriz (2017); Moreno-Lax et al. (2021), p. 122.

  12. Moreno-Lax et al. (2021), pp. 80-83.

  13. Gkliati (2021).

  14. OECD (2017).

  15. Fellini & Fullin (2018), p. 318.

  16. Fellini & Fullin (2018), p. 321.

  17. Fellini (2017).

  18. Baldwin-Edwards (2021).

  19. Cook (2018).


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is former director of the Mediterranean Migration Observatory, Panteion University, Athens and Founding Editor of the academic journal South European Society & Politics. He has served as a consultant or advisor on migration issues for the European Commission (DG RTD, DG Home, EEAS), numerous international agencies (ICMPD, GFMD, OECD, UNFPA, IOM, UNDP, ECRE, GCIM) and for the governments of Germany, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Spain and Italy.

is Senior Lecturer at the School of Business and Law at the University of Brighton, UK. Her research focuses on the economic and social aspects of labour migration.