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Understanding migrant decision-making: implications for policy

Working paper

Written by Jessica Hagen-Zanker, Richard Mallett

Migration is one of today’s most visible policy agendas. Across Europe, the combination of increasingly polarised political environments and 2015’s so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has resulted in a shift towards restrictive migration policies designed to stop certain categories of people from coming to the continent. While most countries continued to maintain policies designed to attract skilled migrants – some notable exceptions to this include Hungary, Poland and the UK – for the most part policies towards refugees and migrants moving through irregular channels became more restrictive.

This paper contributes an additional answer to the question of why migration policies are often ineffective, specifically by drawing attention to a crucial perspective missing from the mainstream debate. It argues that migration policies designed to reduce irregular and forced migration need to take account of how migrants themselves act and operate at the micro level. Understanding actual migration behaviours is a first step to understanding under which conditions migration happen, that is making migration more predictable and supporting those on the move to have safer migration trajectories. In other words, understanding people’s aspirations, behaviours and decision-making processes can contribute to creating genuinely safer and more orderly migration practices.

This paper is divided into three further sections. In the first section, we summarise the evidence on factors that shape individual decision-making. The second section introduces a new framework to help connect the preceding stocktake of the evidence to the core question of policy effectiveness, thereby considering how migrant decision-making mediates the impacts of policy. We conclude with four lessons for policy-making.