While migration among, from, to and across the countries of the Danube Basin is intensifying, there has been little research in interpreting these processes with a focus on age. Most migrants are young (aged 15-34), and their migratory behaviour is closely linked to transitions in their life course: pursuing higher education, joining the workforce or starting a family. These events are not only potential drivers of migration, but also possible challenges or opportunities for cities and local institutions. The age component, together with the focus on local services, gives a unique character to research undertaken in the YOUMIG project.

The latest products of YOUMIG research are seven studies -- Local Status Quo Analyses -- on transnational youth migration, prepared in the municipalities of the partnership. Download the studies by clicking on the name of the city:

Treated as case studies, portraits of the ‘typical’ immigrant-receiving city (Graz), emigrant-sending city (Sfântu Gheorghe) and a municipality in an in-between position (Szeged) can be found among them. The Local Status Quo Analyses were finalised in December 2017.

Migration patterns, age-specific drivers and their relevance for local governance

Migration patterns in the Danube region are shaped by massive and persistent economic gaps between sending and receiving areas and they create, directly or indirectly, an increasingly unequal territorial distribution of net gains and losses of population. From the perspective of local governments, therefore, a key objective might be attracting (back) the key actors in economic and demographic development: the youth.  YOUMIG’s Conceptual Framework follows an approach focused on life events that can be drivers of migration. These are not evenly distributed along the life course, but are rather connected to a transition that accumulates once a person is leaving the parental house and reaches out to individual life goals. In such a structure, characterized by large differences in education opportunities, wages, living standards and other, non-material aspects of the quality of life between cities and connected regions, migration is a logical and, indeed, very popular life choice. Further, the common space of mobility of the European Union facilitates this move, and so does technology (with more online information and a variety of communication channels available). Migration also has costs for the individual: losing cultural and social capital, being forced to adapt to a foreign (and sometimes hostile) environment can act as barriers for many. Yet, young people are usually more flexible, more willing to adapt, and their ‘migration costs’ might be lower than their ‘migration benefits’. Hence, on the long run, young people can rightfully expect that the hardships they face will be compensated by higher wages, better living standards and more professional and leisure opportunities.

Perceptions of development and migration

The interviews and focus groups in the seven municipalities shed light on perceptions of local economic development held by institutional actors and young migrants themselves. The most important factors are related to the current development position of the country and the municipality, and to the direction and speed of development. These views were crucial in framing the interviewees’ narratives about the drivers of migration. A very positive developmental narrative is present in Graz, for instance, as Austria experienced steady economic growth since World War II, and the city itself is well-positioned within the country, being a major regional centre and a destination for immigrants. A rather positive view is held by interviewees in Maribor and Rača (Bratislava), cities in countries which experienced significant economic development since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and where – while a significant wage gap still exists – catching up with the West is seen only as a matter of time. Both cities are centrally located, however, Maribor has faced significant economic hardships in the past decades. Both cities also attract immigrants, although on a much lower scale than Graz. Szeged is in an ambivalent position. Interviewees voiced doubts about catching up with Western Europe, although the city itself is in a rather good position within Hungary and is becoming rather attractive to highly-skilled young immigrants. Some form of ‘developmental pessimism’ is present in those interviews, often emphasizing emigration instead of immigration as more relevant. The most pessimistic perception of the developmental position and perspectives was mentioned in the interviews in Burgas, Kanjiža and Sfântu Gheorghe. Most of the respondents did not think that it would be possible for Bulgaria, Serbia or Romania, respectively, to close the gap with Western Europe. This pessimism was counterbalanced by a certain pride taken from the importance of tourism (Burgas) or the cultural scene (Kanjiža, Sfântu Gheorghe) and by a strong emotional attachment (Kanjiža). Still, on the whole, migration was almost exclusively mentioned in the context of emigration of the youth, and their much needed, but rather unlikely return.

Population change

Another key factor was perceptions of overall trends of population change at country and municipality level and in the context of migration. Again, a difference between East and West is well pronounced, with several in-between positions. Interviewees in Graz spoke about immigration almost exclusively as the main source of demographic growth in an ageing country (and city), and held a ‘utilitarian’ view on the issue of migration, seeing it mainly as a one-way process (immigrants coming to Graz). Emigration from Graz, while not negligible, was rarely mentioned in the interviews. In Maribor, Rača and Szeged the position of their city, and of Slovenia, Slovakia and Hungary, respectively, were portrayed as being both senders and receivers. Utilitarian views are mixed with a clear cultural differentiation in favour of immigrant groups (ex-Yugoslavs in Maribor, ethnic Hungarians from Serbia in Szeged) who are seen as culturally close(r) to the majority society. At the same time, population change is seen as slightly negative, due to emigration which is perceived as a loss. In the case of Burgas, Kanjiža and Sfântu Gheorghe, however, immigration was seen as non-existent or sporadic (Russians and Ukrainians in Burgas). Population change in general was seen as negative, both in terms of total numbers (decline) and of human capital (losing talent). The latter aspect was very important in the two cities with a Hungarian minority (Kanjiža and Sfântu Gheorghe) where the emigration issue was framed as a major threat to the survival of the local (minority) culture.  The expectations of local experts were built into YOUMIG population projections, prepared for all seven localities, resulting in several future scenarios. Experts from Sfântu Gheorghe, Szeged and Kanjiža did not expect a considerable influx of migrants, while experts from Graz took it for granted that there would be one. Stakeholder expectations are important because these discourses might shape local migration policies, and indirectly, migratory processes.

Thinking about migration is rarely focused on local policies. Interviewees reflected on the European (or global) refugee crisis, on national political discourses, and on other trends, such as the depopulation of rural areas, without mentioning specific issues related to young migrants’ needs or the possible impact on the local community. Due to a bureaucratic centralisation of public administration in most countries, topped with an overall developmental pessimism, many interviewees in Burgas, Kanjiža and Sfântu Gheorghe were convinced that authorities cannot deal with the challenges of youth migration. Policy interventions must face this widespread belief, in addition to the administrative problems connected to centralisation itself.

The following three examples are characteristic of the typology of receiving/sending and in-between municipalities, but each and every one of the seven status quo analyses carries the traits of this classification to some extent.

A migrant-receiving municipality: Graz, Austria               

With a population of 287,000, Graz is the second largest city of Austria, and the capital of the Federal State of Styria (Steiermark). Due to the presence of heavy industry (Magna Steyr and several automotive companies), a dynamic tertiary sector and strong higher education, the city offers high average wages (around 35,000 euros per year, before tax) and a high quality of life for its inhabitants. Unemployment is low, around 5%, and according to a recent survey, 97% of the inhabitants rated living conditions in Graz as positive.

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A migrant-sending municipality: Sfântu Gheorghe, Romania     

Sfântu Gheorghe (Sepsiszentgyörgy in Hungarian) is the capital of Covasna county in the Central Region of Romania. A medium-sized city in the region, it is home to 56,000 inhabitants. According to the census of 2011, 76.9% of its population belongs to the Hungarian ethnicity, while 21.9% are Romanians. It belongs to Szeklerland (Székelyföld) where ethnic Hungarians are the majority. Economically, Sfântu Gheorghe’s development is determined by its closeness to Braşov, a major city where around 90% of the population is ethnic Romanian.

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A municipality in an in-between position: Szeged, Hungary      

In many ways, the analysis in Szeged reflects elements from both of the previous two cases. Szeged is the destination of many young immigrants, as well as the departing point of young people who emigrate from the country. Home to 161,000 inhabitants, Szeged is one of the biggest cities in Hungary. It is close to both the Serbian and Romanian borders, which gives the city the advantage of being a major hub for commerce and cultural exchanges across borders. While the general economic recession of the post-transition years had negative effects on Szeged’s economy – several companies in the light industry sector collapsed – as a whole, the city was not hit hard by the economic changes in Hungary.

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Article by Béla Soltész, Hungarian Central Statistical Office

Programme co-funded by European Union funds (ERDF, IPA, ENI)