Cultural barriers in migration between OECD countries


This paper uses a unique set of new indicators enabling us to test the effects of cultural barriers on migration between OECD countries. Using data on migration flows between 22 OECD countries over the period 1990–2003, we find strong evidence for the negative effect of cultural differences on international migration flows. Cultural barriers do a much better job in explaining the pattern of migration flows between developed countries than traditional economic variables such as income and unemployment differentials.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    See for example Decressin and Fatas (1995).

  2. 2.

    Braunerhjelm et al. (2000) present a detailed overview of this literature.

  3. 3.

    Changes in female labor participation in the destination country may matter as well. Ederveen et al. (2007) show that the sustenance of low labor mobility despite regional disparities can partly be explained through the adjustment in female labor participation.

  4. 4.

    Some studies have the migration rate as a dependent variable instead of the number of migrants. The migration rate can potentially be problematic as a dependent variable if the size of the population in the denominator (origin or destination) is correlated with economic variables (see Young (1975) for an extensive discussion on the choice of the dependent variable in migration studies). We chose to enter the relative sizes of the population of the countries of origin and destination as regressors to avoid this problem.

  5. 5.

    Data from ethnologue (

  6. 6.

    These data are on-line on the website

  7. 7.

    The exact results are not presented here, but are available from the authors upon request.

  8. 8.

    In addition, there might be a trade-off with respect to GDP per capita. The meta-analysis of Ederveen and Bardsley (2004) concludes that studies that include only unemployment and not GDP per capita report significantly higher coefficients.


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The authors would like to thank the editor Klaus Zimmermann, as well as three anonymous referees for their constructive comments. They also thank Roel Jennissen, Rob Euwals, Henri de Groot, Pierre Koning, Guido van Steen, Jeroen van de Ven, seminar participants at the University of Essex and at the CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis for useful comments on previous versions of the paper. The authors are also very grateful to Twan Verschaeren for his support in the data collection.

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Correspondence to Michèle Belot.

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Responsible editor: Klaus F. Zimmermann

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Belot, M., Ederveen, S. Cultural barriers in migration between OECD countries. J Popul Econ 25, 1077–1105 (2012) doi:10.1007/s00148-011-0356-x

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  • International migration
  • Culture
  • OECD countries

JEL Classification

  • J61
  • F22
  • O15