Family migration: understanding the drivers, impacts and support needs of migrant families

This report by the independent Expert Advisory Group on Migration and Population analyses the rules around family migration in Scotland and the UK and recommends future action.

Executive Summary


Families play a crucial role in migration and settlement decisions, and in longer-term integration. Decisions to migrate, settle or return are typically made as part of a household unit, taking into account the welfare of the family as a whole. The presence of partners, children and parents can also make a huge difference to how migrants fare in their country of destination, often facilitating integration in health and social systems, education, housing and local communities. However, migration can also create a range of financial, social and cultural pressures for families, which can put strains on relationships and family life, undermine the well-being of children, and limit the capacity of all family members to flourish. These challenges can also stem from poorly designed migration policies, which often produce impediments to keeping families together and to supporting their integration. It therefore matters a great deal how host countries design and implement policies to support migrant families.

The question of family migration has gained significance in Scotland over the past decade. The Scottish Government’s population strategy aims to increase net migration to Scotland, and to encourage settlement, especially in areas facing depopulation. This goal has become more urgent given the continued decline in in-migration from EU countries following the end of free movement. Previous EAG reports have argued that long-term integration and settlement across Scotland are key to achieving this goal, and have suggested that supporting families to settle and integrate in areas facing depopulation is a central part of this approach.

Family migration is defined through national policy frameworks and may vary between countries. In general, family migration falls into three main categories of admission:

  • Family formation occurs where a resident national or foreigner with residency rights marries, forms a civil partnership or other recognised family relationship with a foreigner, and sponsors that individual for admission or status change.
  • Family reunification refers to family members, also referred to as ‘dependants’, who migrate after the arrival of a principal migrant who sponsors their admission. The family ties predate the arrival of the principal migrant.
  • Accompanying family refers to family members (dependants) admitted together with the principal or main applicant (OECD 2017: 8).

The role of families in migration

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the dynamics of family migration, and the challenges and opportunities it creates for migrants and host societies. Families and relationships play a central role in decisions relating to migration and settlement. Families often move in a sequence: a ‘pioneer’ migrant may migrate first, to reduce uncertainties related to the move. This may imply protracted periods of separation, with negative effects on relationships and especially children.

Once in the country of destination, migrant families often face greater challenges in integrating than single migrants. They are likely to bear greater financial costs; may struggle to navigate childcare and schooling systems; and may require additional support in forging connections and friendships in local communities. A particular challenge is finding affordable childcare to enable both parents to work, especially as families will be cut off from their normal family and friendship networks.

Where there are challenges with childcare and finding suitable work for both parents, women are most likely to forego employment. In cases where women are highly qualified, this may trigger a decision to return to the country of origin where childcare is more accessible. Migration can also create strains in family relationships, including through creating dependencies within couples. This is especially the case where residence is contingent on sustaining a relationship, which may make partners (typically women) unwilling or unable to leave an exploitative or abusive relationship. However, migration may also be an emancipatory experience for many people, for example, in relation to norms on gender or sexuality.

Rules on family migration

Migration rules in countries of destination determine which migrant family members can move and settle, and under what conditions. Policies on entry define which family members are eligible for family migration, and who can serve as a ‘sponsor’ for family reunification or to be joined by a partner from overseas. Such rules often set attainment requirements (e.g. income thresholds), and various conditions such as age requirements (e.g. a maximum age for children to join their parents). National policies also determine the rights of migrants and their families once they have arrived, including length of stay, access to work, access to social and public services, and pathways to permanent settlement and citizenship.

In comparison to other OECD countries, the UK has relatively generous provisions on who may apply to enter or remain in the UK as family members, with the scope including unmarried/cohabiting partners as well as same-sex couples. However, the UK has a minimum income requirement of £18,600 for sponsors to form or reunite with family from overseas policies on family migration; this rises to £22,400 for a partner and one child, and a further £2,400 for each additional child. This requirement has been widely criticised as infringing on the rights of children and on family life. Moreover, as we shall see in Chapter 3, it raises equalities issues, creating disparities in opportunities for family migration across income groups, and thus across different parts of Scotland. Settlement can also be very expensive: the fees associated with applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain and citizenship make it challenging for families to acquire a more stable status in their host country.

According to the widely respected Migrant Integration Policy Index, out of the 58 countries included, the UK ranks second from the bottom for provisions on family reunification. The countries ranking highest are Sweden, Finland, Portugal and Canada.

Migrants in Scotland

The report then turns to an analysis of available data on migrant family in Scotland. Most migrants in Scotland (60%) live in families – in a union and/or with children. This is higher than the proportion for the Scottish-born population, and reflects the younger age structure of migrants.

Migrants in Scotland are significantly less likely to own their own homes, and also enjoy less space in their accommodation than the Scottish-born population. The tendency to rent, rather than purchase, a home is likely to reflect uncertainty over length of stay, and lack of familiarity with the UK housing market. Migrants in the younger and older age groups have slightly lower deprivation levels than UK-born comparators, because of good education, high activity rates and good health. However, single-parent non-EU migrants with children have relatively high deprivation, a pattern of disadvantage that requires further analysis.

Families are more than twice as likely to move to cities in Scotland, compared to rural and remote areas – indeed, family migration has been disproportionately focused on the larger cities and the Central Belt. This means that the contribution of family migration to slowing population decline in remote and rural areas is relatively weaker. While most non-UK births in Scottish cities are from non-EU-born families, in rural areas, EU-born mothers account for a larger share of births. This reflects patterns of settlement by EU migrants, with more flexible free movement rules encouraging migration across all parts of Scotland.

Family migrants in Scotland and the UK since 2000

The report then turns to an analysis of survey data on migrant families across the UK. This data suggests that of those migrant households that have moved to the UK since 2000, the majority are ‘mixed’: 68% of households that include at least one foreign-born national also include one or more UK-born national. This confirms census-based data that migrant households are more likely to include children; and also that migrant households rely more on rented accommodation than non-migrant households.

Around 60% of migrants currently living in the UK arrived in the UK as single individuals (with many marrying or becoming parents later). However, the share of those arriving as single has declined slightly over time, which may reflect a change in immigration rules. Women are significantly less likely to arrive as single and childless than men – they are more likely to be already married with children when they arrive. EU migrants were more likely to arrive as family migrants than those who came from other countries, reflecting more lenient rules on family migration under EU free movement.

A high proportion of migrants who arrived after 2000 hold a degree-level qualification. Moreover, for migrant households, and especially those with two or more members born abroad, there is a greater likelihood that more than one member holds a degree – suggesting a greater proportion of highly qualified couples. However, migrant households are also less likely to have all members employed. Instead, they are more likely to see 50% of the household working, typically reflecting a pattern of a male bread-winner and a female staying at home to care for children. This finding appears to confirm analysis presented earlier about the challenges for women in sustaining work, especially when they have children.

Migrant households are less likely to have no-one employed at all, reflecting the fact that most post-2000 migrants entered as labour migrants. However, despite higher qualifications, migrant households enjoy slightly lower incomes than non-migrant households. Explanations for this difference might include lack of recognition of skills and qualifications, less knowledge of the labour market, or limited access to public funds.

Supporting migrant families

In the final chapter of the report, we set out ten suggestions on how policy at UK, Scottish and local authority level could better support migrant families.

6. Enable family migration to remote and rural areas through bespoke schemes, drawing on good practice from Canada (as outlined in previous EAG reports).

7. Facilitate family reunion and reduce inequalities across income groups and areas of Scotland, by removing the minimum income requirement.

8. Provide better information for family members pre-arrival, so that they can start identifying potential employment, childcare or schools and accommodation.

9. Support family members (and especially ‘dependent’ partners) to find suitable work, including through enabling flexible working, entrepreneurship, skills recognition and training.

10. Facilitate access to childcare, through providing better information, support networks, and ensuring migrant families access Early Education and Childhood support.

11. Establish advice hubs, providing a range of services and support to migrants, including tailored integration plans. Such hubs could also support non-migrant residents based on need.

12. Promote community and migrant peer networks, building on good practice with English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) networks.

13. Help find suitable accommodation, including providing interim access to appropriate rental accommodation.

14. Reduce the costs of applying for Indefinite Leave to Remain and citizenship, which can hinder families from securing more stable status in Scotland/the UK.

15. Join up pockets of good practice, in order to link up and expand successful initiatives. Relatively small investments can make a significant different to migrant families, helping to provide support for them to thrive.



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