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Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities in European Cities: Life-courses and Quality of Life in a World of Limitations

LIMITS aims at ...

The LIMITS project aims to identify the causal factors that influence the evolving strategies of immigrants and their descendants towards improving their personal well-being. It comprises research among first generation immigrants from different sending countries in five European countries and to identify trends in the life courses of six selected groups of immigrants. It employed a double viewpoint: a comparative perspective across different groups in six European cities, and a longitudinal perspective on the migrant’s complete life trajectory which has been almost entirely missing in migration research. The project served to improve the knowledge on the critical relationship between socio-economic contexts and the life courses and strategies developed by immigrants and to develop further the methodological toolkit of the social sciences.


The LIMITS project comprises research among first generation immigrants from different sending countries, in six cities in five European countries. It employs a double viewpoint: a comparative perspective across different groups in six European cities, and a longitudinal perspective on the migrant’s complete life trajectory which has been almost entirely missing from migration research.

The cities included into the analysis are Amsterdam, Bielefeld, Lisbon, Rotterdam, Stockholm and Vienna. The selection of these cities was based on their metropolitan character and their countries’ specific histories of immigration and political frameworks. The immigrants included in the research are identified by their place of birth. The research is thus focused on the so-called first generation. The sending countries included in the research are Turkey (Amsterdam, Bielefeld, Stockholm and Vienna), Morocco (Amsterdam and Stockholm), Serbia (Bielefeld and Vienna) and Cape Verde (Lisbon and Rotterdam). Besides, in Lisbon immigrants with an Indian (Hindu) ethnic and religious background, mostly from former Portuguese colonies in Africa, are included in the research

Per city around 600 questionnaires were collected, which resulted in a database of approximately 3,300 cases. Cities under study in the following countries:













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Research findings

The research uncovers different trends in the life course of immigrants and their families, within and across immigrant groups and receiving countries. As has been illustrated in previous comparative research on the legal and economic integration of immigrants in different European countries, ‘national’ differences persist on the level of participation in the labour market as well as in terms of the social and political rights ascribed to immigrants. The status passages of immigrants (as evident from their household, residential and work history) are to a great extent dependent on the specific national and local framing conditions at their residency, as the receiving societies have gone through different immigration experiences, and vary in size, and in terms of immigration policy and welfare regime. The analyses that are performed upon the data within the time frame of the LIMITS project are restricted in scope, as the focus is on the preparation of the dataset for public access.

Pre-migration, education and skills

We found that parents’ education has a significant positive effect on the probability of attaining a higher level of occupation in the destination country. Striking in this respect is that the educational background of the mother gives a somewhat larger effect than that of the father. Also, the place in which one has grown up in the home country (either a more rural, or a more urban environment) has a significant impact on the professional level one attains in one’s work in the country of destination. Being a male (gender has, as could be expected, a significant influence) and having grown up in a city area increase the probability of achieving a better qualified position in work in the immigration society. Female immigrants have considerably improved their schooling level compared to that of their fathers in all groups, including those with the lowest educational profile, already before coming to the destination country. The difference with their mothers’ schooling level is still very much larger.

Labour market participation

The distribution of job levels is profoundly gendered as the labour market experience: compared to women, men are significantly more often engaged at the four highest occupational levels at the middle of their post migration life course. Women, in each group and city, have a lower labour market participation rates than men, despite the fact that their participation rates increase over time. The economic sectors men and women tend to work in differ also significantly – while men are highly concentrated in the industrial or construction sector women are mostly to be employed in the service or domestic sector. Yet, in contrast to males, females’ participation rates do increase with further education in the receiving country. It should be also noted that women’s labour situation is heterogeneous across groups and cities. In some groups their participation in the work force is quite low (e.g. Moroccan women in Amsterdam), strongly contrasting with women belonging to other groups (e.g. Capeverdian female migrants from Rotterdam or Serbian women in Bielefeld and Vienna): At the interview date (2004-2005), merely 12% of the studied Moroccan women in Amsterdam participated in the labour market. In other cities and groups, at the same point in time, women’ participation rates are above 70%.
























Upward mobility

In general terms, there is no evidence of far-reaching social mobility. More specific findings are that groups such as the Turks are not likely to have significant upward moves throughout their life course and the same is true for women when compared to men. Education above primary schooling in the country of origin and any kind of education or training in the receiving country have positive and large effects on upward mobility especially for women.



The analyses revealed noticeably differences between the different European cities and the ethnic groups. The most important, general outcomes are the following:

  • The most frequent type of dwelling is a rented flat or house. The share of respondents living in such a kind of dwelling amounts to 70% at the moment of the interview. In all cities except for Lisbon the majority of respondents resides in a rented dwelling.
  • The average duration of stay in the last dwelling of the respondents amounts to considerable 11.7 years. Apparently the respondents were long-lasting established at the moment of the interview.
  • The status of the dwelling improved definitely over time in all groups and cities. The share of provisional dwellings declined from 20 % one year after migration to 2% at the moment of the interview. In contrast the of owned flats rose form 5% one year after migration to 22% at the moment of the interview.
  • The ratio of the number of rooms and the number of persons the respondents lived in at the moment of the interview is widely balanced. The averaged value amounts to 1.1.
  • Despite the balanced occupancy ratio, 20 % of the respondents moved at their last relocation into a dwelling with 2 or more rooms less than household members. It is particularly the samples with a high average number of household members that are concerned by congested living

Key messages

Being a pilot study, LIMITS most explicit aim has been the provision of a unique dataset for longitudinal analysis, accessible for every social scientist active in the field of migration.

Education and skills:

As pre-migration skills obviously do make a difference, we recommend that policy be less fixated on the ‘danger of immigration’, and allow for a more balanced approach to the phenomenon, considering seriously the skills and education which today’s immigrants bring with them when they enter Europe.

Labour market:

Occupational profiles depend heavily on the local context in which immigrants live. Also, within one local context the labour market career is diversified within and between groups. Clear-cut policy recommendations to improve the situation of immigrants who have settled in the destination countries since years are therefore difficult to give. In general terms, there is no evidence of far-reaching social mobility in terms of occupational level. Nonetheless, concerning labour market participation, in all the diversity over cities and groups we have observed that migrant women in each group and city have a lower participation rate than migrant men. In contrast to males, females’ participation rates do increase with further education in the receiving country. This might be related to the fact that the sectoral distribution of labour over the survey population is deeply gendered. Women, for instance, are predominant in the service sector, where modest schooling might open doors to typical women’s jobs. It could also be related to the considerable arrears in labour market participation that women on the whole still have compared to men; their schooling lags behind as well, so there is leeway women are making up for. Be that as it may, here an apparent opportunity for policy presents itself: intensification of schooling of women of immigrant background of the first generation, focused on specific occupations in specific sectors of the labour market, might well pay off.


A sizable group of large families with already a long history in their new country still lives in congested circumstances. It goes without saying that it concerns predominantly families with numerous children. As the chances of the next generation are involved, local and national policy makers should all the more give priority to an effective housing policy which facilitates a sufficient number of sized and affordable dwellings for the groups involved.

Social capital:

In those countries where immigrants do not speak local majority languages, if social integration is to be promoted, efforts should be directed at the provision of language learning opportunities. Among the groups that are not sufficiently able to communicate in the vernaculars are often the elderly and women. Jobs often provide a field of interethnic interaction. For some groups it has been shown that the number of years a person has spent in employment is a predictor of the extent of interethnic friendships. Though this effect is not consistent, it points at ways of better incorporating hitherto socially not well integrated parts of the migrant population into mainstream society. Fears that friendships among immigrants and participation in immigrant institutions may restrict social participation in the encompassing society are not warranted. The opposite has been shown: Persons with an active integration into immigrant social life are better integrated into the receiving society than those with few ties with co-migrants. Against the background of these findings, political considerations of curbing down collective migrant activities to stimulate participation in formal and informal networks of the receiving society seem ill-founded.