Cars were burning from rioting on the streets. Moroccan and Algerian youth were running amok in the suburbs of Paris and Lyon. Helpless police forces were unable to control the escalating violence. Then-Minister of Internal Affairs Nicolas Sarkozy threatened the mob with announcements of tighter law enforcement and stricter legal penalties. Eventually, the situation was brought under control, but those events left a lasting impression. In 2005, Europeans realized they were confronted with a young migrant generation that was at-risk and in need of serious attention. 

Several other European countries wondered whether France’s experience could occur in their societies as well. Would migrant minorities take over the streets and threaten the social balance in Germany, Spain, or the UK? Reactions from politicians, scientists, and the media were quite diverse. While some argued for improved integration policies, others said that violently protesting immigrants should be sent back to their country of origin. Still others stated that within their country, immigrants and the autochthonous population not only lived together in peaceful cohabitation, but were also developing a fruitful exchange of cultures, ideas, innovations, and trade.

The 2005 riots in France and the subsequent public outcry highlighted that immigration had decidedly become a central issue in European societies. Europe had been the source of emigrants to North America between 1850 and 1950. Now, it has become a net recipient of immigrants. After World War II, the states of what became the European Union became a popular destination for immigrants from Africa, Asia, and the former Warsaw Pact states. In addition, immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe has resulted in a tremendous change in the ethnic composition of  northern and western European nations like France, the UK, and Germany.

Since the countries of origin of the immigrants are very diverse, the migrant populations of states in the European Union vary widely. For example, in Germany the most prominent group of immigrants came from Turkey in the late 1950s through 1970s.  Later, Polish and Russian immigrants entered the country after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989.  The UK, due to its historical bonds, attracted people primarily from India and Pakistan. And the Netherlands attracted immigrants mainly from its former colonies in South and Central America, such as Suriname.

This heterogeneity of non-native populations makes it difficult to conceive of a single European response to the riots in France. In France, young Moroccans and Algerians who lack clear educational or career prospects cannot be easily compared with relatively educated and successful Russian immigrants in Germany or to adolescents of Indian descent in the UK.  A closer look at the historical immigration flows in Europe reveals that there is not one generic migrant youth, but rather several different groups from varied backgrounds who interact individually or as part of migrant youth movements within the European societies where they now live. 

They Came From Anywhere and For Any Reason

The patterns of migration flow have changed over time, and the size and composition of migrant populations reflect both current and historical patterns. The heterogeneity of the migrant population has two sources: historical patterns of migration and social differences between migrant groups.

Over the course of the last 60 years several distinct migration waves have taken place. While shortly after World War II refugees and displaced persons mainly marked the migrant population, the 1950s to 1970s witnessed migration due to industrial needs. This was the time when so called “Gastarbeiter” (guest workers) from southern states like Turkey, Italy, and Greece migrated to Germany and France. Later, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Balkan Wars in the former Yugoslavia led to the new movement of eastern European migrants to northern European states, especially the UK and Germany. Throughout this period, the heaviest migration occurred between states that are historically linked by colonial relations; for example, from India to the UK, or Algeria to France. The results are four major types of immigrant groups in Europe: refugees, labor immigrants, asylum seekers, and student migrants.

To understand the motives and causes of migration, migrants’ social status should be taken into account since the various groups differ in educational and socio-economic capital. For example, some immigrants are highly qualified employees with university degrees who migrated to improve their economic opportunities. There are also asylum seekers and guest workers from southern Europe from lower socio-economic groups with little educational background. The former kind of immigrant has been considerably more successful within their European homes than the latter kind has, which has shown a higher probability of disrupted vocational careers and unemployment.  Since socio-economic status (SES) and educational careers are usually transferred between parents and their children, most migrant youth in Europe face several hurdles in coping with present and future economic and social challenges.

Demographic Structure of Migrants in Europe

In recent decades, immigrants to the European Union were, on average, younger than the population of the destination states. For example, in 2008, the median age of European citizens was 40.6 years, whereas the median age of immigrants was 28.4 years. In addition, fertility rates of migrant women are notably higher than those of the native population in most European countries. These facts cast a different light on immigration. Instead of looking at immigrants as sources of problems, they can be seen as an important resource that can counteract the negative repercussions of aging European populations. In Germany, for example, contemporary immigration policy is not only guided by the principle of attracting highly educated migrants but also by the goal of preventing age and generational imbalances, hence, the encouragement of young immigrants. This policy, however, poses a dilemma in that the desired fertility comes largely from low SES groups that are mostly at odds culturally and ideologically with European tradition. Low-SES women tend to have more children then high-SES women, a link which is mediated by the value of children as economic support for their families in later life. Whereas high-SES families tend to have the same average number of children as families with a native background.

Characteristics of Migrant Youth in Europe

The combination of highly educated and young workers is especially attractive not only to German but also in general to the European Union’s immigration policy. Recent studies have shown that selective immigration policy is not only affecting the demographic structure of migrant populations, it is also indirectly linked to increases of international trade and scientific and economic innovations. Nevertheless, as in much of the western hemisphere, most immigrants do not fit these criteria. In fact, statistically, young migrants in Europe face a high risk of exiting the education and training system without ever having obtained an upper secondary qualification. It is estimated that 17 percent of young people in Europe with a migrant background leave school before obtaining a secondary school degree. Young male migrants especially tend to be at risk as one out of five male students is likely to leave school early. However, compared to the first immigrant generation, the rate of school dropouts has decreased.  Yet, there are countries like Germany (23 percent migrant early-leavers compared to 8 percent of German students) or Spain (45 percent compared to 28 percent) where migrant youth take a tremendous risk to enter the labor market without any school certificates and therefore are more likely to be unemployed or to fill low-income jobs.

Because of educational differences, migrant youth are more likely than their native peers to face unemployment. Within the European Union, ten percent of the young migrant generation is without jobs, while the native unemployment rate is about five percent. Dramatic differences between these populations occur in Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, and Spain, where two- to  four-times more young migrants are without regular occupations.

It is especially the younger generation of immigrants who are at a high risk of poverty and social exclusion. Almost one third of young migrants are declared as being at risk by the European Union since their income is less than 60 percent of the population average. In Sweden, France, and Estonia, migrants are very likely to live under precarious conditions.

The Educated Elite

The demographic skew of the underprivileged immigrant gets worse when the subgroup of highly successful youth is statistically separated from the whole migrant population. This subgroup is characterized by a high assimilation of values and norms of the host country, high educational achievement, and support from parents with college or higher degrees.  These youth are likely to possess the host country’s nationality before immigrating with their families due to blue card arrangements. Overall, 28 percent of the migrant population in the European Union belongs to this subgroup, and there are more young women (30 percent) than young men (26 percent) who can be called the educated elite among migrants. These youth attend high schools and universities more often than other migrants and, thus, they enter the labor market at least at middle-income positions. They further exhibit higher rates of civic participation through voting, community service and the like. In this regard, migrant youth in Europe follow patterns similar to those found in western hemisphere societies with a gap dividing high and low-SES groups’ chances of educational, economic, and societal participation. An important insight of European science and politics is that it is not migration but rather socio-economic status that offers or hinders access to social resources. Large-scale assessments like the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have shown that low school grades and competencies are not at all predicted by migration background if analyses control for SES. Hence, whether or not a young student belongs to the educational elite is not a question of origin but rather of the socio-economic background of their families.

Cultures Combined

Classic sociological theories claim that assimilation to the host culture increases from first to later immigrant generations. Empirical evidence, however, indicates that children of immigrants tend more to combine elements of their culture of origin and the host culture than do their parents. This is called integrated acculturation and seems to be the most prominent pattern among European youth. Not only do young migrants master their foreign and host language, they also have a high likelihood to be part of mixed peer-groups. More than two-thirds of migrants in Germany claim that they have friends of their own origin as well as German friends. Studies in Switzerland and Austria have similarly reported that between one-quarter and one-third of migrant adolescents nominate a native peer as their best friend. Furthermore, migrant youth on average score higher on measures of integration (combining both cultures) than on assimilation (focus on host culture) or on segregation (emphasizing culture of origin). One still has to keep in mind that these cultural orientations are linked to religiousness and SES. Young migrants with extremely high scores on religiousness and a very low SES tend to endorse segregational attitudes more than their less religious and high-SES counterparts.

Political Participation and Social Movements

Despite strong tendencies of combined cultures there is still a lack of political participation of migrant youth. This is due to their legal status, which doesn’t permit immigrants to partake in, for example, national elections and political decision-making processes. Nevertheless, migrant youth movements became more important in the late 1960s. Within the new social movements that developed during that time, labor immigrants’ and asylum seekers’ rights associations developed alongside immigrants’ and refugees’ own organizations. Immigrants participated in migrant youth movements and especially anti-racism movements. In the early 1990s an increasingly professionalized NGO sector assisting migrants  developed in many European countries, composed of human rights organizations, humanitarian Christian organizations, and refugee and migrants’ rights organizations emerging from new social movements.

In order to promote and defend political interests, and to exert some pressure on the political system, immigrant groups increasingly start to act as collective actors along ethnic, racial, or religious lines. Other international organizations like “Migrants Rights International” are federations of very different migrant groups and mainly aim at promoting the recognition and respect for the rights of migrants and members of their families. On a more local level mainly cultural organizations deal with enhancing intercultural and interreligious dialogue between migrants and non-migrants. One typical example might be the “Forum of Cultures” in Stuttgart, Germany. This association of several local migrant groups aims at establishing a platform for young migrants and non-migrants to express and exchange their cultural ideas and habits, as well as to organize youth festivals or intercultural meetings and exhibitions.

Due to the established infrastructure of their religious community, the most well-organized migrant youth groups in Europe seem to be those within Muslim communities. Even though it is only one of many forms of ethnic mobilization, and Muslim youth seem mostly to be engaged in community service activities rather than radical Islamic activities, the mobilization of Muslim immigrants around religious concerns has received considerable attention in recent years.

The Overstrained Educational System

In many European countries, immigration has brought tensions to the political system with some countries pushing to restrict further immigration, and others  encouraging the immigration of highly educated and qualified immigrants. Nonetheless, most countries share the strategy of delegating these challenges to the educational system, whose tasks include improving language skills and competencies of migrant children and preventing dropouts that worsen future unemployment. In addition, schools are expected to teach democratic values and norms of the host country so the young migrants become responsible and active citizens. At the same time, schools are supposed to combat xenophobia and strengthen intercultural understanding to ensure an open-minded society. It is understandable that these multiple goals strain the educational system. A case in point is Germany, in which only 10 percent of its GDP is allotted to education and schooling. This budget covers merely the regular costs for schooling and does not allow for additional programs that aim at reducing prejudice and discrimination. Programs like “School without Racism” in Germany are equipped with low budgets and hence yield no significant outcome in terms of changing the attitudes of students.


There is no such thing as “the” migrant youth in Europe. There is a large variety of subgroups between and within European countries.  Nevertheless, there are four conclusions that can depict the situation of these young people. First, on average, migrants face a higher probability of low education, low income, and unemployment. Second, there is a subgroup of very successful young immigrants who attain high educational degrees and successful vocational careers. Thirdly, the gap between migrant youth who are at risk and those who are likely to succeed is a consequence of a high social inheritance that is transferred from parents to children. Low-SES migrant children tend to be at risk while high-SES offspring await a relatively prosperous future. Finally, despite being socially disadvantaged, most young migrants in Europe are not problems to society, but find constructive ways to balance their own culture with the culture of the receiving country despite being excluded from political decision making and voting.   

It seems reasonable to conclude that those immigrants who started the riots in France very likely did not envision a secure future. Hence, as long as youths – immigrant or native – feel lost within society and have little hope for the future, any European country is liable to experience burning cars and public turmoil in the streets.

HEINZ REINDERS is a professor and senior researcher at the Department for Research in Education at the University of Wuerzburg, Germany. He was also a fellow at the Catholic University of America, and at the University of Fribourg. His work focuses on the integration of young migrants into host societies.