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Europe can benefit from the Refugee Stream

What demographic research can tell us about Europe‘s refugee crisis - an interview with Hill Kulu
Copyright: Jezperklauzen

“We should see large ethnic minority families as an asset for our low-fertility societies and ensure that these families are supported,” argues Hill Kulu, Professor at the University of Liverpool, in his exclusive interview for Population Europe. He offers a practical example: "In the UK, the housing stock mostly consists of two and three-bedroom houses; four-bedroom houses are seen as a luxury, but they are essential for many ethnic minority families to avoid overcrowding."

Your latest publications have centred around partnerships and fertility among immigrants and their descendants in Europe. What makes this an interesting area of research?

Hill Kulu: It is important to study immigrant and ethnic minority families for two reasons. First, the share of immigrants and their descendants has increased in most European countries. Immigrants thus shape demographic, social, and cultural trends. Second, family patterns of immigrants and ethnic minorities provide valuable information on their lives and integration. For example, the spread and dynamics of inter-ethnic marriages can be seen as the ultimate litmus test of immigrant and ethnic minority integration. Are there, for example, ethnic and cultural barriers in our societies that cannot be (easily) crossed?

For FamiliesAndSocieties you recently found that the likelihood of having a first, second and third child varied among immigrant groups and between immigrant and ‘native’ populations in Europe. Why is this important and what does it mean for policymakers?

HK: We studied the reasons for high fertility among certain ethnic minority groups in Europe, e.g. women of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin in the UK, women of Turkish and North African descent in France and Belgium. Some researchers attribute high fertility among these groups to cultural factors and religion, arguing that large families continue to be a norm. Others argue that early childbearing and high fertility is the consequence of poor education and labour market prospects among ethnic minorities.
Our statistical analysis showed that socio-cultural factors, particularly the number of siblings and religiosity, accounted for a significant amount of high fertility among ethnic minorities. The role of education and economic factors was, perhaps surprisingly, negligible. That is, one reason why certain ethnic minorities do have high fertility is that they come from large families and they are more religious than other groups.

The policy implication of this finding is that we should see large ethnic minority families as an asset for our low-fertility societies and ensure that such families are supported; children from such families should have the same opportunities as those from the average‘, two-child families. For example, access to housing. In the UK, the housing stock mostly consists of two and three-bedroom houses; four-bedroom houses are seen as a luxury, but they are essential for many ethnic minority families to avoid overcrowding.

Let’s turn to current events. The European refugee crisis has exposed fears about, probably most substantially, integration. Ceteris paribus, do migrants/refugees tend to integrate into destination country societies? If yes, then what are the main obstacles preventing them from actually doing so? If not, is this a problem?

HK: Let us take a long-term perspective. There were more than ten million refugees after World War II in Europe. Their re-settlement took years The last displaced persons (as they were called) left the refugee camps in Germany in 1952. What do we know about the integration of the post-war refugees and, particularly, their children? The analysis of Canadian census data shows that (some) post-war refugee groups belong to the highest educational and income groups. In the UK, research shows that children of the post-war refugees have been the most successful group in the labour market (even if neither David nor Ed Miliband did get the prime minister‘s job). Refugees are normally highly educated, industrious and motivated people.

I am sure that Germany and Europe „werden das schaffen‟, despite temporary drawbacks, and will benefit from the recent refugee streams assuming that the refugees will be given a chance by supporting their employment and their children‘s aspirations for education. If so we will see many successful Germans of Syrian origin in the next generation. I hope that other countries will follow the German example. Once again, let us think about how much the Northern American societies have benefitted from the European post-war refugees!

Thank you!


Hill Kulu is Professor of Demography and Quantitative Geography at the University of Liverpool School of Environmental Sciences. His research focuses on the interaction between family, fertility, and migration. At the moment, he is working on two large projects: Partner Relationships, Residential Relocations, and Housing in the Life Course (funded by the British ESRC, the German DFG, and the Dutch NWO), and Changing Families and Sustainable Societies, a FamiliesAndSocieties project.

Interview: Patrick Dick for Population Europe