Identity Issues Arising from Migration: A Comparative Study of Europe and Immigrants



            The migration of people has caused several identity issues both for immigrants and the nationals of receiving countries. It is known that identity is socially constructed, learned through interactions and fluid. Hence, it can be said that one’s identity is prone to change through time and especially space. Migration plays an important role in identity (re)formation of both immigrants and receiving country nationals, particularly Europeans in this study. This paper aims to examine and discuss the understanding of identity issues and migration from the perspectives of European people and immigrants, thus a comparative study is presented in this paper. Specifically, it discusses the way how identity issues that are resulted from migration and immigrants are considered by European people and how immigrants are influenced by European identity, culture, values, and beliefs and at the same time influence European identity, culture, values, and beliefs. In this context, migration and identity (re)formation are thought to be inseparable factors that significantly affect each other, and they lead to social and cultural issues in society. Previous research showed  that some scholars believed that multiple identities of immigrants impacted European society and identity in a rather negative way. Europe required immigrants to undergo a process of integration but at the same time made it almost impossible for immigrants to become integrated by its perception of immigrants as cultural aliens. Some claimed that Europe considered multiculturalism and diversity as a danger to their societal homogeneity, culture, and European identity, thus immigrants were regarded as strangers and aliens, which made it difficult for immigrants to complete their integration process and regain their sense of belonging. This paper deals with identity theory, migration, identity issues, and the perspectives of European people and immigrants.

Keywords: identity, identity theory, social identity, migration, multiculturalism, hybridity, culture, European identity, Europe

1. Introduction

            In identity theory, the self is regarded as reflexive, which means that the self is able to categorize, classify and name itself by taking itself as an object in regard to other social categories or classifications (Stets, J., & Burke, P. 2000, 224). This process is called identification in identity theory (McCall and Simmons 1978). Identity is formed by means of this identification process. People tend to identify themselves with a particular identity or group sometimes through ethnicity, race, culture, religion, nationality, gender role, ideology, and values (“IDENTITY (Social Science)”, 2021). Hence, people are influenced by their environments while forming their identity consciously or unconsciously. This makes identity a rather “complicated and unclear concept” (Fearon, 1999). Some scholars claim that identities are socially constructed because it is said that we learn about our own identity and others’ identity via interactions with peers, family, organizations, institutions, media, and other connections that we make in our lives (“Why Identity Matters – Critical Media Project”, n.d.). Therefore, identity is fluid, multiple and can change through time and space because it is socially constructed and influenced by the environment (LA BARBERA, 2016, 3). Identity enables a link between individuals and the world around them. Through identity, how people see themselves and how others see them is combined (“Identity in question”, 2021).


            Migration has a significant impact on people’s identity and identity (re)formation. Migration can be defined as “the (more or less) permanent movement of individuals or groups across symbolic or political boundaries into new residential areas and communities” (“migration, sociological studies of |”, 2021). People carry not only their belongings, family members, and stuff but also their culture, identity, religion, and values with them while they are migrating across territories or borders. However, their identities can change in time after migrating into a different culture, ideology, environment, and religion. The identities of migrants are contingent and in a continual process of re-articulation and reformation (LA BARBERA, 2016, foreword vi). Identities of migrants migrate with them, and just like their identities rearticulate and reform in the process, the identity of the host country or city is rearticulated and influenced, as well (LA BARBERA, 2016, vi).

            Migrants find themselves without an image and history in the receiving country because their history, culture, and values are left in their country of origin even if they carry a speck of these with themselves (LA BARBERA, 2016, 3). They can’t find the environment that they are familiar with in the receiving country, hence migrants feel lost and alone in that unfamiliar place. They struggle to become integrated in this new society through inclusion but some are excluded and regarded as strangers or sometimes “aliens” by the receiving countries (LA BARBERA, 2016, 3; Huysmans, 2000, 758). This causes migrants to be marginalized and to be regarded as the “other” in the eyes of the receiving country nationals because of the identity, culture, race, and ethnicity of the migrants, and it also creates the dichotomy of “us” and “them” (Deaux 1993; LA BARBERA, 2016, 4). This becomes problematic and also becomes the case in most of the European countries due to the perception of the concept of European identity. European identity can be defined as identifying with Europe in a cultural, social, economic and political sense (Bellow, n.d., 2). When it comes to the integration, European identity plays a crucial role because migrants especially from non-EU countries are expected to comply with the process of possessing European identity, which includes the set of beliefs, norms, culture, and behaviors (Bellow, n.d., 1). However, even though this process of inclusion and integration is completed by some migrants, they are not seen as Europeans or possessors of European identity because as Bhabha says they are regarded[OKÖ2]  as “almost the same, but not quite” (1984, 127).

            Therefore, several identity issues arising from migration emerge in Europe. This paper discusses and deals with these issues from two different perspectives: European and immigrants. In the first section of the paper, these identity issues and the approach to migration will be examined and discussed from the European perspective, and in the second section of the paper, the same issues will be examined and discussed from the perspective of immigrants.

2. Literature Review

In the process of identity construction and formation, identity is influenced by several external factors such as family, peers, environment, culture, religion, gender role and so on. This makes identity a fluid and contextual concept. One of the most important factors that has an impact on identity id migration. People carry their identities, culture, beliefs, and norms together with them while migrating to another place, and their identities are obliged to change through time and space in this new society and environment.  This study focuses on the immigrants who migrate to Europe and the Europe’ response to this. Identity of Europe and of immigrants especially the ones who come from non-Western countries differ from each other. Europe considers these immigrants as a threat to the public order, cultural identity, and societal homogeneity. Multicultural environment that comes with immigrants’ arrival becomes a problem for Europe and especially European identity. Many studies focused on the problem of the cultural and social identities caused by migration either in the immigrant viewpoint or the European viewpoint in isolation. This paper conducts a comparative study by considering both European perspective and immigrant perspective of migration and identity issues.

In this context, identity is claimed to be reflexive, that is, it categorizes, names and classifies itself in relation to other categorizations and classifications according to Stets and Burke (2000). McCall and Simon (1978) call this process “identification”.  Moreover, Fearon (1999), La Barbera (2016), and Stets and Burke (2000) state that this reflexive nature of identity makes it fluid, contextual, complicated, and also unclear. According to La Barbera (2016), Bhugra (2005) and Timotijevic & Breakwell (2000), identity is socially and culturally constructed, therefore identities of immigrants are inclined to change in the new environment, culture and society. La Barbera (2016) and Huysmans (2000) claim that no matter how much immigrants strive to be integrated in the receiving societies, they are sometimes excluded and considered to be strangers and even cultural aliens. They become “the Other” of this new society due to their unfamiliar and different identities and cultures from the European ones according to La Barbera (2016) and Huysmans (2000). Furthermore, Deaux (1993) and La Barbera (2016) claim that this situation creates the dichotomy of “us” and “them” by regarding the immigrants as people who do not belong the European society.

According to Bellow, European identity, which is defined as identifying with Europe in a social, cultural, economic, and political sense, makes the integration process of the immigrants difficult and problematic because immigrants are expected to reform and reconstruct their identities in accordance with the European identity. For that reason, European identity is a highly significant factor in the process of integration and belonging. On the other hand, Huysmans (2000), Wing & O’Neill (2006), and La Barbera (2016) indicate that owing to the European approach and immigration policies immigration became a security issue and Europe searched for ways in order to decrease the number of immigrants. They say that this turned migration into a public concern and immigrants were started to be considered as a threat or danger to the European identity and homogeneity of society.

When we look at this process of migration and identity reformation from the perspective of immigrants, Bhugra (2005) defines the stages of migration as pre-migration, migration, and post-migration and in this third stage of migration immigrants find themselves under the process of absorption and acculturation within the social and cultural frameworks of the new society. According to V.Colic and Walker (2003), immigrants feel lost and alone in this new environment and culture. Besides, migration causes the loss of social structure, familiar environment, culture, and even language and losing these is not easy for immigrants because their bond with “home” and everything represented their social identities are harmed in this process according to V.Colic and Walker (2003) and Bhugra (2005). Bhugra (2005), V. Colic and Walker (2003), Verkuyten and Yildiz (2007) say that immigrants are sometimes dehumanized and degraded to the terms such as “young Asian”, “African man/woman”, “Middle Eastern looking person” without considering their country of origins and social identities. Integration of immigrants especially the ones coming from third World countries became difficult because of their race and ethnicity according to Bhugra (2005) and Verkuyten and Yildiz (2007). Buitelaar (2006) and La Barbera (2015) state that especially after 9/11 incident, Muslim migrants have been started to be regarded as “the other” and more marginalized in Europe since Europe considers itself as progressist, democratic and secular which is not compatible with the “anti-modernity of Islam”. Therefore, immigrants but specifically Muslim immigrants are seen as inferior, uneducated, backward and cultural aliens.

However, V. Colic and Walker (2003), La Barbera (2016), and Freya (2018) assert that just like the identity of immigrants is influenced with migration, the identity of the host country is rearticulated and influenced by the unfamiliar identity and culture of immigrants and these identities of immigrants reform European identity. On the other side, the response, approach, and treatment of the receiving country in the process of integration plays a crucial role and influences the length and possibility of integration of the immigrants according to V.Colic and Walker (2003). In this process, some people became “hybrid” being in Bhabha’s (1996) term which is used for defining people who carry the mixture of two cultures. Huysmans (2000) and La Barbera (2016) claim that although immigrants struggle for integration into this new European society and regain their sense of belonging, they are considered to be strangers, aliens, and as Bhabha (1984) says “almost the same but not quite”. Even though the immigrants feel like Europeans and integrated, Europeans don’t think that they can ever be as European as they themselves are.

These findings and studies have influenced this study to be a comparative one by discussing the same topics and issues from European perspective and immigrant perspective in order to understand the viewpoint and standing of both parties. This study, therefore, addresses and discusses the identity issues arising from migration with the perspectives of European people and immigrants.[OKÖ3] 

3. European perspectives of migration and identity issues

            At first the approach to migration was rather positive in the 1950s and 1960s in Europe. There was an extra labor force need in the European countries, hence migration was encouraged to meet the need for extra labor force (Huysmans, 2000, 753). Later on, immigration policy of Europe changed from permissive to restrictive and control-oriented because immigration was thought to be a threat or danger to cultural identity and societal homogeneity of the European member states (Huysmans, 2000, 754, 758). Issues such as multiculturalism, chauvinism, xenophobia, racism, and European identity emerged. This made Europe search for ways in order to decrease migration into member states because migration was now seen as a security issue (Wing Commander P. E. O’Neill RAF, 2006, 323). European societies have desired to consolidate their identity and hinder their members from being afraid for losing their cultural identity and values (Wing Commander P. E. O’Neill RAF, 2006, 343). Migration and immigrants are thought to be threatening and damaging the homogeneity of the society and European identity because immigrants come from third world countries and don’t have the same beliefs, values, culture, and norms as the Europeans have. The concept of European identity came up from the Copenhagen summit of the members of the EC that took place in 1973, which issued the Declaration of European Identity, and it primarily had economic and political elements defining the European identity but the underlying assumption was common cultural factors and political interests that were considered to be the foundations of a shared and common identity (Bellow, n.d., 4).

Since immigrants were multicultural beings which brings diversity in almost every sense, and which is thought to be threatening by Europe, immigrants are undergone the process of acculturation and assimilation to integrate into the society and (re)form their identities in accordance with the receiving country’s identity (V. Colic-Peisker and I. Walker, 2003, 338). Identity is socially and culturally constructed and fluid and it is “tied to a grid of social roles, statuses, groups and networks” (Timotijevic & Breakwell, 2000). These ties of people are harmed when people migrate to somewhere far away from their homelands and enter into and encounter with an unfamiliar, unknown environment and cultural identity. They feel lost and don’t know how to conform to the new society with their “disconnected and shattered identities” (V. Colic-Peisker and I. Walker, 2003, 338). Although immigrants try to be integrated into the society, they are never seen as the nationals of the receiving countries of Europe because some people even think that immigrants are the rivals of the nationals of the member states, competitors of distributing the social goods and they are stealing their jobs, rights, and it is thought that they are inclined to commit crimes (Huysmans, 2000,767). This has led to the welfare chauvinism (“Immigration, Welfare Chauvinism and the Support for Radical Right Parties in Europe”, n.d.). Welfare chauvinists think that immigrants are not only their rivals but also the “illegitimate recipients” of socio-economic rights (Huysmans, 2000, 767). Immigrants are seen as problem and danger for the European member states even though it is not explicitly indicated. Moreover, though the European identity itself is dynamic and an endless process, immigrants are and will be regarded as “almost the same, but not quite” (Bhabha, 1984, 127).

4. Immigrant perspective of migration and identity issues

            Migration is described to be occurring in three stages. The first stage is called pre-migration which includes the decision making process and preparation to migrate. The second one is called migration which is the physical relocation of people from one place to another one. Lastly, the third stage is called post-migration and it is defined as the “absorption of the immigrant within the social and cultural framework of the new society” (Dinesh Bhugra, 2005). Migrants desire migration for many different reasons such as finding better opportunities, living conditions, climate change, economic stability, safety, and war. They perceive migration as a way to escape this unpleasant and undesirable environment but migration policies problematize migration as a threatening and destabilizing force that has to be kept under control (La Barbera, 2016, 4). Migration involves the loss of one’s social structure, culture, familiar environment, values, and even language (DINESH BHUGRA, 2005). This is not easy for the immigrants to undergo this process of migration because they lose their bond with their “home” and everything that represented and anchored their social identities. In the receiving country, they are sometimes “dehumanized” by the people and the media by being called as “a young man of Middle Eastern appearance”, “a middle-aged Asian woman”, “African man/woman” irrespective of their country of origin or cultural and social identity (V. Colic-Peisker and I. Walker, 2003, 341).  Furthermore, after 9/11, Muslim migrants have been started to be seen as “the other” and more marginalized in Europe. Europe considers itself as democratic, secular and progressist and the assumed “anti-modernity of Islam” (Buiteleaar 2006) is regarded incompatible with Europe (La Barbera, 2016, 6). Immigrants coming from third countries are mostly considered as inferior, uneducated, backward, and cultural aliens in Europe. In this context, ethnicity and religion became significant as markers of identity (Verkuyten and Yildiz 2007). Immigrants strive to become integrated and not marginalized in the receiving European countries. However, the identity (re)construction and acculturation processes can be very difficult for immigrants and refugees who relocate in Europe whose social and cultural identity is unfamiliar and distant for most immigrants and refugees that come from third world countries or non-Western countries (V. Colic-Peisker and I. Walker, 2003, 338). In the process of (re)construction and (re)formation of identity, and acculturation, the sense of belonging plays a crucial role. Besides, the response of the receiving society is highly important in this process for immigrants to be integrated into the new society (V. Colic-Peisker and I. Walker, 2003, 339). The approach and the treatment of the host country towards immigrants influence the process of identity (re)construction and integration of immigrants because it might either make it easier for immigrants to be integrated into society or a lot harder, hence both sides have a great impact on this process. If the immigrants are “dehumanized” or “othered” by the receiving countries just because they don’t possess the same culture, values, identity, and norms, it will be almost impossible for the immigrants to feel the sense of belonging or integrated. Some even become “hybrid” (Bhabha, 1996) beings by carrying their own culture and identity on the inside but reflecting and showing their new “acquired” identity and culture outside. The term “hybridity” refers to the mixture of two different cultures in the same way as it was used to be in post-colonial era in the twentieth century in political and cultural concepts (Sulyman, 2014 ,18).

However, Europe considers their existence as a danger to their culture, societal homogeneity, public order, and European identity (Huysmans, 2000). For that reason, Europe strengthens its external borders and control in order to make it more difficult and exhausting for immigrants and refugees to migrate into Europe. As much as immigrants strive to have the sense of belonging and become integrated, they remain strangers or aliens for Europe (LA BARBERA, 2016, 3). Europe still believes in “the political myth that a homogeneous national community or Western civilization existed in the past and can be re-established today through the exclusion of migrants who are identifies as cultural aliens” (Huysmans, 2000, 758).


Migration and identity are interacting phenomena that have impacts on each other particularly in the occurrence of migration. One’s identity is able to classify, categorize and name itself in relation to other classifications and categories, and this makes identity reflexive and contextual. With the influence of race, culture, ethnicity, religion, and values, people identify themselves with specific groups or people. The environment around people has great importance in the identification process because identities are mostly learned and acquired through interactions and observances. Therefore, one’s identity can easily alter through time and space according to what this person’s surroundings are and where this person is. Thus, when a person migrates somewhere different from his or her “home”, his or her identity is prone to change in time. This makes migration a significant factor or impact on people’s identity and identity (re)formation. People keep their identity, culture, values, and beliefs and migrate with them but this doesn’t mean that their “current identity” will be intact and unchanged. It will highly likely be affected by the new environment and time. Furthermore, not only the identity of immigrants but also the identity of the host country is expected to be influenced by the different identities and cultures of the immigrants in this multicultural atmosphere. People migrate voluntarily for accessing to good education, health care or living conditions and they migrate involuntarily for escaping hunger, war, conflict, drought, economic circumstances. But it is the same when immigrants reach another country far away from “home”, they feel like losing their history and image. They arrive in an unfamiliar and unaccustomed place, which makes them think that they are alone and lost sometimes. In order to find themselves again and to get rid of this loneliness, they strive for the integration into this new society of the reached place. Nevertheless, this new society and country might estrange and marginalize them for not possessing the same culture, identity, beliefs, values, and even the same religion. This turns immigrants into the “other” of this new society, who are not completely accepted into this society no matter how they struggle. This becomes the case in most European countries since they have a concept called European identity. Immigrants don’t belong to this European identity because the concept requires to have common values, cultures, beliefs, and norms of Europe. For this reason, immigrants are considered to be “almost the same, but not quite” by the Europeans.

After the change of perception of migration in 1970s, Europe changed its immigration policy to be restrictive and control-oriented because immigration had become a public concern as multiculturalism and diversity increased in European countries. Immigration became an issue that was threatening the cultural identity and the homogeneity of society. Afterward, Europe tried to inhibit and decrease the number of immigrants and refugees by consolidating its external borders and making new policies. On the other hand, when we approach migration and identity from the perspective of immigrants, it is certain that migrating from one place to another is not an easy process to undertake because it brings a lot of problems and difficulties for immigrants. As it is said before, people migrate voluntarily and involuntarily for different reasons usually to find better living conditions and life standards. However, migration policies of Europe problematize migration because it is thought to be dangerous and destabilizing for the European societies and countries. Europe regards some immigrants and refugees as strangers and even “aliens”. Although immigrants try to be a part of this society and become integrated, they are not successful in their attempt because Europe doesn’t want its European identity to be altered and influenced by the multicultural environment that immigrants bring together with them, and it doesn’t want its community’s homogeneity to be distorted.

Aslıhan Abacı



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