From data to decisions: How DYNAMIG can contribute to better migration policies

20 Nov 2023

How do people decide whether to migrate? Do migration policies take into account decisions, preferences and behaviour? And do these policies influence people’s decisions? Tobias Heidland explains why these questions are essential and how the DYNAMIG project aims to contribute to a better understanding of migration decisions, migration policymaking and policy effectiveness.

Irregular migration, that is, migration without a valid visa, is once again among the most pressing topics in the EU. A particular cause of concern is that in addition to several million Ukrainians who unbureaucratically received ‘temporary protection’, over 200 thousand irregular migrants have reached Europe in 2023, many of whom do not have a realistic chance of receiving asylum. Among the top five nationalities are Guineans, Ivoirians and Tunisians – nationalities with low probabilities of acceptance.

The European asylum system has major flaws. One of the most difficult to deal with is that people seeking asylum typically need to cross into the EU irregularly before they can apply for asylum.

Closing borders completely cannot be the answer. Putting an end to border crossings without a visa would mean that the vast majority of those fleeing persecution of war would have no more way to get protection in the EU. If this channel remains open and there is ambiguity about prospects, hope and a lack of information about recognition rates, many will continue to try their luck via the asylum channel, despite not having realistic chances.

"From the perspective of a policy planner, what is needed are policies that create the right incentives for people to use the migration pathway they are supposed to use."

From the perspective of a policy planner, what is needed are policies that create the right incentives for people to use the migration pathway they are supposed to use. People seeking asylum would then use the asylum track, and those looking mainly for work or better living conditions would use legal pathways into the labour market, or stay put.

In much simpler everyday matters such as car insurance, firms are quite successful in offering different policies that are attractive for risky drivers, bad drivers or the particularly risk averse, respectively. As a consequence, these customers self-sort into the right risk pool and contract, creating lower prices, higher customer satisfaction and higher profits for insurers. That works because the probability of accidents and customers’ preferences are well understood, and policies can be designed accordingly.

In the context of migration, key destination countries such as Germany are conducting considerable policy reforms to improve this self-sorting and, in turn, reduce the number of irregular migrants by discouraging those with little chance of being granted protection. But of course, in the case of migration, the issue is much more complex than in the above example for at least three reasons.

First, the determinants of migration are not well understood. Decades of research have improved our understanding of what determines how many people migrate between two countries. But at the level where the actual decisions are made – individuals and families – our understanding is still quite limited. This is particularly the case when it comes to the effects of policy on migration decisions. 

Second, as a result, we do not know how effective key policies, such as border controls and policies targeting the root causes of migration, are. Sometimes, it is unclear how policy effects come about, which means we have little understanding of how different potential migrants react to policy changes. A policy might thus change the composition of the migration flow in ways that are surprising to policymakers. 

Another open question is at what stage of migration these policies have the greatest impact – before people decide to leave, when they have already started preparations, when they are in transit, or when they arrive in destination countries. Yet, all of this information would be needed to design effective policies.

Third, policymakers may have an understanding of migration decisions and the effects of policies that is not in line with the – rather limited – evidence base. Given that academics do not understand migration decision-making and policy effectiveness very well, policymakers are unlikely to have a perfect understanding of these matters, so it is natural that they will resort to simplifications and heuristics. 

They are however the ones tasked with designing these policies. To advise policymakers effectively, researchers need to understand on what basis policies are made and what (mis-)conceptions policymakers may have of decision-making or the likely effects of migration-related policies. That way, they can target policymakers’ knowledge gaps.

"To advise policymakers effectively, researchers need to understand on what basis policies are made and what (mis-)conceptions policymakers may have of decision-making or the likely effects of migration-related policies."

In the DYNAMIG project, we aim to contribute to a better understanding of all three dimensions – focusing on Europe and Africa. To achieve this aim, our international team of researchers from over 15 countries, based at 8 research institutes, think tanks and universities in Europe and Africa, works with a wide variety of approaches. 

We work in various fields, such as human geography, sociology, economics, and computational social science, and study decision-making processes using a mix of qualitative and quantitative methods. This means we can combine the strengths of in-depth interviews with causal strategies, such as decision experiments. 

We will engage with decision-makers in national governments and institutions such as the European Commission to study policymaking. We will use large-scale field experiments (randomised controlled trials) to study policy effectiveness and employ large and granular micro databases that combine different observational data to study patterns across countries and heterogeneous contexts. 

A particular strength of the project is that the different pillars and approaches are interlinked, and that there is a substantial exchange – among researchers and with those who can influence or are impacted by migration policies. Instead of simply conducting research, then undergoing peer review and finally communicating results, we seek input much earlier in the research process. 

Before our research approaches are set in stone, we discuss them within the project team and invite researchers and policymakers to our seminars and events to provide input that we then incorporate into the research designs. We want to avoid simply planning and conducting research while talking to other academics, and instead create a two-way information exchange that aims to yield better research and more useful knowledge. 

Until the end of 2025, DYNAMIG will contribute qualitative and quantitative research and policy insights to the academic debate and, most importantly, to policymakers who can use it to make more informed decisions.

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Views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Executive Agency (REA). Neither the European Union nor the REA can be held responsible for them.