Many migrants do not stay permanently in their destination country and eventually remigrate, either returning home or migrating to another third country. What leads people to leave? Economic integration is certainly a key factor: Most of the existing research finds that unemployment increases the probability of remigration. However, some studies paint a more complex picture showing either no significant effect of economic integration on the probability of remigration, or higher chances of leaving for migrants in both low- and high-income groups.
An article in International Migration Review by Louise Caron and Mathieu Ichou (Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques, INED) refines the understanding of the role of unemployment at one’s destination on remigration behaviours. The authors used linked-census longitudinal data from 1971 to 2011 in England and Wales (ONS Longitudinal Study) and restricted it to foreign-born individuals. They combined this data with internationally harmonised information on educational attainment distributions in the population of migrants’ birth countries (the Barro-Lee dataset). With the combination of these datasets, they constructed a direct measure of migrants’ initial selection that compares their educational attainment with similar counterparts (same-sex and same-age) within their origin country. This relative educational attainment measure places migrants in the educational position they held in the origin country’s hierarchy. They argue that it is both a good indicator of migrants’ skills and partly captures their pre-migration expectations that are crucial in shaping decisions to remigrate. Then, they indirectly measured migrants’ remigration from England and Wales through census net attrition: individuals who disappear from two consecutive censuses without being recorded as dead are considered to have left.
The results show that the effect of access to employment on migrants’ remigration is not the same for all migrants, but depends on their initial educational selection from the origin country. Concretely, migrants who do not have a job (unemployed or inactive) are on average more likely to remigrate, but this effect is significantly larger among migrants who were initially more positively selected in terms of educational attainment. This is especially true among male and recent migrants.
This finding suggests that remigration is driven not only by migrants’ absolute level of economic integration in the destination country, but also results from a broader expectations-achievement mismatch among initially highly selected migrants who find themselves in an unfavourable labour market situation in the host country, while their relative position in their country of origin made them expect better socio-economic outcomes. In addition to this ‘unfulfilled expectations’ interpretation, other mechanisms could also play a role. In particular, highly selected migrants may be more likely to remigrate because they expect to have better job opportunities or higher economic returns on their skills in another country.
The study helps to better understand the phenomenon of remigration by providing new empirical insights on the heterogeneous effect of migrants’ access to employment in their destination country in their decision to eventually leave – either temporarily or permanently.