Popular Destinations for Migrants to Europe


This is a summary of Katie Kuschminder’s Deciding Which Road to Take: Insights into How Migrants and Refugees in Greece Plan Onward Movement, published by Migration Policy Institute (August 2018).


Between 2015 and 2016, EU Member States received nearly 2.7 million applications for asylum, with most of these migrants arriving in Europe through the frontline states of Greece and Italy. The burden on these two countries to process and absorb such a large amount of people so quickly is significant. The EU trial response was to attempt to relocate thousands of migrants throughout the rest of the Union. Unfortunately, the effort failed on two fronts. Some member states were slow to participate, and many migrants simply did not want to relocate to their assigned countries. The solution to absorbing refugees would need to be reevaluated.

Previous research suggests that a migrant’s choice of destination is based on deeply held beliefs and highly personal considerations. For Afghan migrants, certain destinations signify social prestige; Eritreans favor northern Europe and the U.S. while viewing Greece and Spain as unsafe. However, there has been little research done on how migrant destination choices change during the journey. After all, it is a long way from Africa and South Asia to Germany. Migration Policy Institute Europe (MPI) surveyed over 500 migrants arriving in Athens, Greece to examine how their intentions may have changed over the course of their journey.[i]

In total, Germany was the most favored country for migrants, with Greece, Sweden, and the U.K. following behind. Regardless, upon setting out with a final location in mind, 64% intended to hold true to that destination. MPI believes this provides evidence that individuals who plan to migrate choose their destinations carefully and based on strong personal preferences.[ii] Their information is primarily received via family and friends currently living in the intended destination country, though the internet and social media are also information sources where internet access is available.[iii] One of the findings in MPI’s research is that migrants are more persistent in reaching their original destination when receiving information from trusted, personal, and first-hand sources about that host country.

Nevertheless, a notable group of people changed their mind about their destination while en route to Europe. Few opted to stay in Greece upon arrival instead of continuing north, but another large portion of these individuals had considered Greece to be their destination only to change their minds upon arrival in Athens. MPI noticed that migrants named popular host countries as their initial destinations (U.K., Germany, Norway) but along their journey became more interested in Austria, Belgium Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands. Transit countries often provide opportunities for new information, networking, and the insight on the best methods to continue the journey.

Finally, for those migrants that changed their destination after arriving in Greece, four primary factors were consistently cited:

     (1) the amount of time they had spent in Greece (the longer the stay in Greece, the more likely migrants were to change their plans to either stay permanently or select a new destination);

     (2) their legal status in Greece (the varying concerns and knowledge of legal status did not help predict migration choices) ;

     (3) their perception of their living conditions in Greece (those who decided to stay had been able to find work, be self-sufficient, and send home remittances, but these individuals are in the minority as Greece has had extreme difficulty in meeting the challenge of refugee accommodation facilities and support); and

    (4) their degree of concern about the potential difficulties of an onward journey (among those migrants opting to stay in Greece, 51% did not want to face the potential risks of moving on – a precarious northern border and the possibility of being returned to Greece have been significant motivators for migrants choosing to stay in Greece).

This suggests that poor conditions in transit and failed migration ambitions (such as not receiving refugee status) are key drivers behind a migrants’ decision to change their planned destination and migrate onward.

If the EU is to attempt to try another effort at refugee relocation, they should consider MPI’s two policy recommendations that were reached as a result of their study. First, transit countries play a critical role in shaping destination decisions along the journey, which means that Greek reception and integration of migrants must improve. Second, migrants will be reluctant to relocate to a country where they have no family or friends because these contacts are the primary architects of the migrant’s final location. Expecting migrants to willing relocate to entirely unknown lands may be unreasonable. For example, of the forty-seven asylum seekers assigned relocation to Bulgaria, only four actually went. Thirty-six dropped out of the program and seven simply absconded. A similar trend was observed in Romania and Estonia. And an estimated 40% of those relocated to Portugal had left for more favorable EU destinations.



Ryan Morgan Knight is an associate attorney with Haynes Novick Immigration in Washington, DC, focusing his practice on a broad spectrum of employment-based nonimmigrant and immigrant visas. His previous experience includes removal defense, asylum, family-based petitions, investment visas, consular processing, and administrative/federal appeals.


[i] 519 migrants surveyed: Afghanistan (167), Iraq (60), Iran (41), Pakistan (117), and Syria (144); questionnaire followed a life cycle approach (target destination before, during, and after migration); migrants who intended to migrate from Greece to another country in the EU were asked why.

[ii] This is an interesting conclusion for the report to reach because, in my opinion, it does not coincide with the stereotypical image of a refugee, at least as it has been cultivated in the United States. This country exalts refugees as the most downtrodden individuals on the planet, desperately fleeing persecution by any means necessary to any country that will take them – often at the first opportunity and with nothing more than the clothes on their back. To me, the conclusion that 64% of migrants to Europe have the luxury of carefully planning their trip indicates that the major motivating factor may not be the need to flee from their home country but rather the desire to travel to a new country. That’s fatal to a U.S. asylum claim. In any case, I’m not sure how Europe defines their refugees, and the Latin American migrants that are coming to the U.S. have drastically different circumstances than those hailing from Africa and Asia.

[iii] The report notes that “[c]ontrary to portrayals in the media, almost none of the respondents cited smugglers as an information source.” It is unknown whether the same thing can be said for U.S. migrant flows across the southern border, which is far beyond the scope of this MPI report.