Muslim Migration to Europe

June 17, 2015

Immigration to and migration within Europe has significantly increased since the mid-20th Century. A lot of migration has been within Europe, especially by Eastern Europeans as well as migrants from North African countries. Since the 1960s, the percentage of immigrants to Europe who are Muslim has significantly increased. The settlement of Muslim communities in Europe has sparked many debates about European immigration and integration policies. This teaching module will explore the migration of Muslims to Europe and the history of immigration and citizenship policies in European countries.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:
III. WORLD HISTORY I. The Post-War Period, 1945 - Present: The student will demonstrate knowledge of significant political and cultural developments of the late 20th century that affect global relations.


This module exmaines four major streams of migration to and within Europe:

  • 1945-1960s: War adjustment and decolonization
  • 1955-1973: Labor migration
  • 1974-1988: Restrained migration
  • 1988- Present: Dissolution of Socialism, East-West migration, Asylum/Refugees

After World War II, millions of people were displaced. As a result, internal migration increased within Europe as many people sought new lives and work opportunities after the war. The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention influenced many European countries to accept refugees and asylees from WWII and other war-ravaged areas. The convention defines 'refugee' and the responsibilities of states in protecting resident refugees. Initially, the convention focused on protecting refugees from World War II. The geographical and temporal boundaries of the creation of 'refugees' were removed by the 1967 protocol to the convention. Denmark was the first country to ratify the convention in 1952.

Post-WWII was also a period of decolonization that encouraged European colonists to return to Europe. Former colonial subjects moved to Europe for work and studies. For example, the United Kingdom drew many migrants from countries in the former British Empire such as India, Pakistan, and Yemen as well as refugees such as Poles, Jewish Holocaust survivors, and Hungarians fleeing the Soviet Army during this period.

In the 1950s, many labor migrants or 'guest workers' from Southern and Eastern Europe, Turkey and the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa were recruited by governments and businesses to work in and rebuild Europe. Germany, for example, recruited labor migrants from Turkey. France and Belgium attracted many young men from Morocco and Algeria. Over time, more immigrants joined them as European economies flourished and job opportunities continued to grow. Many of these labor migrants intended to work for a few years and then return to their home countries.

In the 1970s, an economic recession hit Europe and left many migrant laborers unemployed. From 1973 to 1975, many Western European governments implemented restrictive immigration policies. These policies varied from country to country but were generally referred to as "immigration stop" policies, which intended to stop foreign labor recruitment and prevent immigrants from coming to Europe. However, these policies were not effective in encouraging return migrations. Many migrants stayed in Europe and brought their families to join them through family reunification policies and continued labor migration. Since the 1970s, the number of immigrants in Europe has increased rather than decreased.

Along with the overall increase of immigrants in Europe, Muslim populations have also grown throughout Europe over the past few decades. Some Muslim migrants who were already living in European countries during the 1970s and 1980s had opportunities to gain citizenship during this time, which helps explain the increase of Muslim populations. This period saw many European governments trying to enforce restrictive immigration policies while also providing amnesty for migrants living in their countries. For example, by 1974, Belgium had instituted strict policies for work permits in an effort to reduce immigration. Belgium had also granted amnesty to many labor migrants living in the country who did not have work permits. Many governments supported family reunification policies for migrants already living in Europe as a means to encourage integration with the larger society and a stable lifestyle for labor migrants.

Recent Movements

Many recent immigrants have gained access to European countries through family reunification and marriage. There has also been an increase of asylees and refugees who are fleeing war-torn countries or unstable political regimes, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The Netherlands in particular has received many refugee and asylum-seekers. Many refugees use undocumented immigration routes, boating across the Mediterranean or trekking across deserts into Middle Eastern countries such as Yemen, to seek work and safety in European countries. The new Muslim immigrants to Europe tend to be families intent on permanent settlement rather than the more mobile labor migrants. However, there has been a gender shift in the demographics of immigrants. Historically, men have been considered the primary labor migrants. Recent scholarship reveals that women were also part of early migrant populations and continue to migrate to Europe. For example, Moroccan women continue to migrate to Southern European countries often looking for work in domestic service, agriculture and small industries. 

European governments have tried various methods to reduce immigration, including enacting tougher deportation policies, trying to improve the conditions of emigrant countries, and warning illegal immigrants about the dangers they'd face along the route to a European country. European governments have also made it increasingly difficult to obtain permanent residency or citizenship in attempts to reduce immigration. For example, Germany's nationality law was based on the rule of jus sanguinis (right of blood), where a person had to have German ancestry in order to gain German citizenship. That law has been only recently changed to allow long-term immigrants in the country to gain citizenship. Other citizenship laws focus on the perceived lack of integration by recent immigrants. The Netherlands, for example, recently instituted immigration laws that potential spouses must have knowledge of Dutch language and culture in their home countries before the Dutch government will grant permission for immigrants to enter the Netherlands. However, many immigration laws created by European governments are also subject to restriction by the European Union Courts, which has promoted free movement over restrictive immigration policies.

Since the 1970s, Muslim communities have begun to stabilize and grow in Europe as first and second generation migrants have become more settled. These Muslim communities are part of the changing social, political, and economic landscapes of many European countries. For more on the issues and challenges facing Muslim migrants in Europe, see the Case Studies and Debates below. 

Classroom Resources and Handouts

Case Studies by Anduin Wilhide, PhD Candidate, History, University of Minnesota


  1. Does Islam Require Muslim Women to Wear a Hijab? (download link)
    A KFAI reporter examines the practice of wearing hijab in different cultural contexts, including Turkey (4:43 audio clip)
  2. BBC "Muslims in Europe"
    Provides interactive maps on Muslim migration including demographics by country, video and audio stories by Muslim migrants and articles about key issues facing Muslims in Europe. 
  3. NPR "An Islamic Journey Inside Europe"
    Provides several interviews with Muslim migrants from Europe who discuss a variety of topics about what their lives are like.

Suggested Readings

Hansen, Randall. "Migration to Europe since 1945: Its History and its lessons," The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. (2003)

"Europe's Shifting Immigration Dynamic" by Esther Ben-David, Middle East Quarterly Spring 2009, pp. 15-24.

Migration Information Source: Integration Key to Combating Radicalization: A Q&A with Solveig Horne, Norwegian Minister of Children, Equality, and Social Inclusion (Country Profiles)

Focus Migration: Immigration: Facts and Analysis (Country Profiles)

Pew Forum Research Center Mapping the Global Muslim Population: European Overview (2009) Also see BBC's "Muslims in Europe" interactive map.

Wikipedia "Islam in Europe"

Curriculum Resource: History of Refugees