Migration and demographics in Europe

  • Consortium of Migrants Assisting Organizations
  • 16.10.2017 11:09

In the coming years, a positive migration rate will be the fundamental requirement to avoid significant aging of the general population, reduction of the workforce, and overburdening of social security systems in almost all EU countries.

Prior to the events of 2015 known as the ‘European refugee crisis’, migration was a virtually non-existent topic in the news. After 2015 the issues rapidly captured newspaper headlines and the imagination of the general population, in a matter of several months. The current discussion about migration in both our society and politics is largely based on heightened emotions and strong statements.

The emotion-driven response has resulted in a disproportionate focus on some aspects over others, just as important. Migration is primarily seen as a security issue and understood in direct connection to radicalisation and terrorism. Politicians are competing over who will announce border closures more vehemently. Migrants are becoming an easy target for hate crimes, which often include physical attacks.

Demographic evolution in the European Union

Most European countries have experienced similar demographic trends in recent decades: birth rates are decreasing, while average life expectancy is increasing. In practice, this means the population is ageing and the number of people of working age is declining. This will create a growing pressure on national social security systems and reduce the numbers of people available for employment in critical sectors such as nursing and primary healthcare. An acute lack of workers will have a negative impact on national economies. Some even talk of an impending ‘population catastrophe’ in Europe.


Number of births in EU 28



“European countries face natural population decline.”


In 2015, the average fertility rate in the 28 EU countries was 1.58, which is much lower than the 2.1 rate required to maintain a constant population size in developed countries. Even though many European countries have been experiencing an increase in fertility rates since 2000, Eurostat’s data suggests that all European countries face natural population decline. The situation is the most urgent in Romania, Poland, Cyprus, Spain and Greece. The Czech Republic was within the EU’s average in 2015, with an average of 1.57 live births per capita of the female population. At the same time, the average age of women giving birth has increased, currently to 31.

Average number of born children per woman in Europe 1960-2016 

The most important correction for population decline in the EU is migration from third countries. Migrants primarily include people coming to the EU legally, but also people with irregular status such as asylum seekers. The graph below shows the age composition of mobile EU citizens and third-country migrants into the EU. The comparison of these age pyramids illustrates a large dominance of working-age third-country citizens coming to the EU, significantly lowering the average age of the local population. While the median age in the EU-28 was over 42 years in 2016, the median age of immigrants was 27.5 years. 

Age structure of migrants to the EU by sex, nationality. (yellow EU nationals, blue non-EU nationals).


Among mobile and migrating people in the EU in 2015, 56 % of them were male, but the statistics vary significantly when origin and target countries are taken into account. According to available information, there were almost 39 million female migrants compared to 37 million male migrants residing in OECD countries. The effects of gender balance of the migrant population in the EU are therefore inconclusive.  


Aside from fluctuations at the turn of the 1960s and in the first half of the 1980s, the EU-28 has experienced a positive migration rate in the last 50 years, with an even further increase in recent years. In the context of the current neutral and further declining rate of natural population growth, migration from third countries is the key reason why the total number of EU citizens is not decreasing and, on the contrary, has increased by 1.5 million between 2015 and 2016. 



Population change in EU28 by 1000 people.

In 2017, The Economist published their prediction of the evolution of the number of EU citizens up to the year 2050. Their projection included two scenarios: one considering migration (both immigration and emigration) and one without migration. The Economist showed that, should the EU open up to migration, the number of EU-28 citizens would grow from 512 to 529 million, while if the EU closes down its borders it would fall to 471 million. Some countries such as Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, could have problems maintaining the current number of citizens even within the scenario considering migration. Countries, where migration rate will be a particularly fundamental demographic factor, include Sweden, Austria, Germany, Luxembourg and Lithuania. However, in the case of Lithuania and several others Eastern- and South-European countries, it is assumed that the primary form of migration will be emigration, which will only speed up the population decline.

Forecast of population change in the EU with migration and without for 2017-2050.  

More focus on the utilitarianism of migration policy could lead to rationalisation of the ongoing discussion.


Impacts on migration policy

Every country’s migration policy is the result of a compromise between different and often opposite interests and approaches. Societal values, humanitarian, utilitarian and security issues stand side by side, along with international commitments and external relations. When viewed as utilitarian, demographics is value-neutral, focused on prosperity and the specific benefits of different policies. The extremes of emotion about migration in Europe exposes the categorical clash of values within European society, magnified by a predominantly security perspective. More focus on the utilitarianism of migration policy could rationalise the ongoing debates – but the approach is not uniformly appropriate to all forms of migration: for example, refugees are generally considered within humanitarian and international-law frames.


Positive migration rate will be the fundamental requirement to avoid significant aging of the general population, reduction of the workforce, and overburdening of social security systems in almost all EU countries.


it is impossible to clearly foresee the long-term impact of automation, changes in the structure of the economy, possible economic problems or even the number of incoming asylum seekers, on the developments in the European labour market. Yet even with these uncertainties, the statistics and projections about Europe’s future demographics suggest that in the coming years, a positive migration rate will be the fundamental requirement to avoid significant aging of the general population, reduction of the workforce and overburdening of national social security systems in almost all EU countries. Should the rate of legal migration significantly decrease, the possible negative implications must be considered.

The question of which immigrants the European Union should accept remains open - which origin countries, qualifications, gender and age groups or individual migrants’ perspectives of stay should be preferred, whether it should succumb to large industrial concerns or try to establish fair access to the labour market for all migrants.

Setting up long-term migration policies in EU countries should have a clear and solid base in statistics about factors such as birth rates, life expectancies and length of productive life. Migration policy led only by the security fears of the general population or the immediate needs of employers, is bound to fail when faced with the real socio-economic challenges that Europe is likely to experience in the coming decades.

About author: Consortium of Migrants Assisting Organizations


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