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.


1. Goals of the report

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 right kinds of policies and programmes can help migrants to thrive and realise their potential, and can facilitate integration.

Given the importance of families in migration and integration, it is striking how rarely immigration policies across OECD countries have designed policies that put families at their centre. Indeed, most European countries, including the UK, have viewed family migration largely as a secondary or unintended consequence of labour migration and something to be closely controlled and even restricted. This is often linked to a general goal of restricting levels of immigration, as well as to a view of migration as primarily driven by labour markets needs in the receiving country. Indeed, since the mid-1970s, many European countries have seen family reunion as a form of migration ‘by the back door’, and as encouraging patterns of longer-term settlement that go against the grain of the state’s immigration policy goals.

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 is a key part of the Government’s goal of mitigating population ageing and decline. 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 recognise that supporting families to settle and integrate in areas facing depopulation is a central part of this approach.

This report analyses the role of families in migration and settlement, and considers ways in which policies at local, Scottish and UK level might support and promote immigration and settlement in Scotland. The aim is to highlight the kinds of policies and contexts that can enable migrants to flourish and realise their potential. Among the questions the report addresses are:

  • how can Scotland attract families to come and live in Scotland?
  • how can the UK Government, Scottish Government and local authorities encourage families to put down roots, especially in regions facing demographic pressures or labour shortages?
  • what kinds of support can help migrants realise their potential, whether in terms of developing education and skills, finding appropriate employment, accessing housing and health and social services, or fostering connections with local communities?

2. Definitions

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in its article 16(3) that ‘[t]he family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State’. This definition leaves open the question of precisely which relationships define membership in a family and on which grounds (biological, legal, economic) they are to be established. Spouses, civil partners, unmarried (de facto) partners, parents and children, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren and other ‘near’ relatives are all part of everyday understandings of family. Yet the question of whether and how these relationships confer rights to live in the same country in a situation of migration is more complex.

Family migration is defined through national policy frameworks and may vary between countries depending on the broader aims of immigration and citizenship policies. In general, family migration falls into three main categories of admission.

  • Family formation occurs where a resident national or those with residency rights marries, forms a civil partnership or other recognised family relationship with an overseas national 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).

We adopt these definitions in the report, unless otherwise stated. The report also uses the term ‘family migration’ to refer to processes of migration and integration that implicate families in decision-making and movement; and ‘migrant families’ to denote couples, their dependents, and wider family networks that include at least one member who has migrated to the host country. We define migrants as people who have been resident for at least a year in the country of destination (ONS). This group is therefore distinguished from, for example, seasonal workers who provide short-term labour over a period of less than 12 months.

It is important to recognise that the categories outlined above are shaped by national policies on migration, which limit the extent to which families can determine the people who constitute their families (Kofman 2004: 245). Indeed, state definitions of ‘family’ in migration policy often lag behind new ‘ways of living together’ which have evolved for settled populations, imposing more restrictive definitions on migrant households and relationships. Policies that assume the primacy of the nuclear family, headed by a male bread-winner, ignore more extended ties, step-families and friendships which can play a key role in migration, adaptation and settlement (Bonizzoni 2009: 88).

3. Outline of the report

The report starts with a brief overview of existing studies on family migration, explaining the role of families in migration and settlement, and how migrant families have been shaped, supported or disrupted by contexts in countries of destination. It argues for an approach focused on ensuring that migrant families flourish and realise their potential. This sets the scene for Chapter 2, which reviews different policies adopted across immigration countries in the OECD, exploring the kinds of approaches that have supported or hindered migrant families. Chapter 3 analyses census and administrative data on family migration in Scotland, identifying key patterns and trends. Chapter 4 draws on more extensive survey data on migrant families in the UK to explore how migrant families fare in terms of qualifications, employment, housing and well-being. Finally, Chapter 5 draws on the analysis of the preceding chapters to set out possible options for Scotland, focusing on policies and programmes at the level of local authorities and Government (at both a Scottish and UK level).



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