Migrant Youth in Europe

HIR Issue: 
Youth on Fire

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.