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 Understanding Family Migration

There is extensive social scientific research exploring the role of families in migration decision-making and patterns of movement, and how families and relationships affect migrant integration and settlement in host countries. These questions have been debated from a wide range of disciplinary perspectives, focusing on different levels and agents of decision-making (Massey et al. 1993). In this chapter, we provide a concise overview of key literature, presenting findings that are relevant to designing policies on family migration. We start by reviewing research on the role of families in migration decision-making; section two examines studies on families and integration, and considers some of the conditions under which migrant families are likely to flourish.

1. Families and migration

Sociological and anthropological studies of migration have demonstrated the central role of family relations, responsibilities and ties in decisions relating to migration. As Eleonore Kofman notes, ‘the decision to migrate is seldom the product of individual decision-making; its timing is closely related to the family life cycle and major events in the life-course of the first and second generation of immigrants, and not necessarily understood as a direct response to labour market opportunities’ (Kofman 2004: 248-9). The importance of life-course has also been highlighted in demographic research exploring the interplay between family change and migration (Kulu and Milewski 2007). Power relations and hierarchies within the family relating to different family members’ roles and responsibilities play an important part in determining who can move, when and how, often leading to highly gendered and age-specific trends in migrant cohorts (Bonizzoni 2009: 83). This means that regardless of whether individuals migrate alone, households move together, or family members migrate in sequence, families are often involved in making decisions, which are driven not only by economic considerations but also by social, cultural and emotional expectations and aspirations.

Studies of networked migration have shown the significant role that both immediate family and wider networks of extended family, friends and acquaintances can play in facilitating subsequent moves, both practically and psychologically, as ‘pioneer’ migrants reduce some of the uncertainties involved, providing information and practical support to new migrants. Moreover, for certain social groups and/or sending locales (countries, regions or sometimes towns and villages) the ubiquity of migration experiences can lower cultural and social barriers to migration as it becomes an ‘expected’ feature of life (Kõu et al 2017). Networks should not however be seen as automatically forming, or as leading to an ongoing flow of increased migration. Work on migration systems has shown that over time, a combination of positive and negative experiences and consequences of migration can feedback into decreasing patterns movement and settlement (De Haas 2010).

The importance of families in migration decision-making have also been increasingly recognised in economic theories of migration. Neoclassical economic models have traditionally treated migrants as individual decision-makers, maximising utility by making rational choices driven by a combination of largely economic push and pull factors in sending and receiving countries (Massey et al 1993; Sjaastad 1962; Todaro 1976). However, the theoretical neatness of these models has been at odds with the empirical evidence of migrant behaviour (Abreu 2010: 10; Boswell 2008), not least in relation to the importance of families and wider social networks in influencing decisions to migrate (Mincer 1978). New Economics of Labour Migration theories sought to bridge this gap by acknowledging the role of households in decision-making (Massey et al 1993). Such theories also recognise the incompleteness of information available to potential migrants concerning economic conditions in both sending and receiving contexts, which might undermine ‘rational’ decision-making (Stark and Bloom 1985; Stark 1991). This new set of theories therefore paid attention to the ways in which migration decisions are deeply influenced both by concerns for and needs of other family-members and by the transfer of information and provision of support through migrant networks.

Family decisions on migration are also deeply influenced by policy frameworks for migrant workers. The clear-cut categories of family formation, family reunification and accompanying family members defined by policy often become blurred from the perspective of the migrant families, and how they themselves manage and experience migration. Moreover, rights and opportunities across these categories can vary within tiered migration systems. Those moving through more highly skilled routes to longer-term and better-paid posts are more likely to be supported by employers who often provide family relocation packages and support to assist with the practical aspects of a move (Ryan and Mulholland 2014: 257). This assists families to plan moves in line with policy categories and to put their plans into practice in relatively straightforward ways, based on fuller knowledge of the consequences for a range of family members. For example, Kõu et al’s study of highly skilled Indian migrants moving to the UK or the Netherlands, found that consideration of a spouse’s future prospects for employment and career progression played an important role in migration choices and decisions for this group of migrants.

For instance, Sonali (26, NL) estimated that her career would have had a long delay without the spousal benefits of her husband’s high-skilled migrant visa. Shashi (39, UK) had previously lived in the USA with his family, where his wife was willing to work, but could not do so due to restrictive visa regulations and experienced concurrent staying at home as a semi-voluntary prison sentence (Kõu et al. 2017: 2798).

For those moving on more restrictive visas to lower paid or more temporary forms of employment, a family’s intention to move or not often evolves over time, and may not align neatly with policy categories. Many families, for example, send a ‘pioneer’ first to test the waters, without making an explicit decision on whether other family members will follow. This decision to join the pioneer family member may depend on whether practical issues of securing income, accommodation and so on have been resolved. However, initial plans for a short separation, followed by return or family reunification, do not always match realities. New configurations of family and protracted periods of separation – what Bonizzoni terms the ‘transnational phase’ – are a common experience and have considerable repercussions for family relationships, caring arrangements and emotional ties (Bonizzoni 2009; Ryan 2011). The strains that prolonged separation places on families both emotionally and practically can lead migrants to seek ways to reunite, within a migration system if they can, or circumventing it if they must. This may involve pioneer migrants working to build up sufficient income to act as sponsors and/or seeking to switch visas to more accommodating routes. It may mean other family members visiting on tourist or family visitor visas and then seeking ways to stay for longer or to find employment and apply for a working visa in their own right. Overly restrictive rules may lead migrants to find ways of reuniting family through irregular migration, which can in turn store up bigger problems for the future including poverty and precarity, inequality, and irregular status of adults who arrived as children.

Studies have also shown that families are involved not only in the initial decision to move, but also in migrant experiences and decisions once a family is spread across national borders. Indeed, many migrant families can be described as transnational families, meaning that nuclear and extended family members ‘live some or most of the time separated from each other, yet hold together and create something that can be seen as a feeling of collective welfare and unity, in short, “familyhood, even across national borders”’ (Bryceson and Vuorela 2002: 3). Members of such transnational families can be included in decisions regarding remittances, divisions of labour, the emotional and practical aspects of caring for family members, choices and dynamics relating to integration, length of stay, and decisions to return (Kay and Trevena 2018).

In more open migration regimes, such as the framework for free movement of EEA nationals, families could migrate together or in a chain which expanded over time to include more extended family and a wide variety of relationships. This may not have been the only (or even the primary) reason given for migration, but it was often an important aspect of deciding both where to go and in supporting processes of longer-term settlement. As Kay and Trevena found in their largescale study of EEA nationals in Scotland, many migrants followed this pattern. The authors describe the situation of Ewa from Poland, who moved to a small town in rural Scotland with her husband and children, motivated by the desire to join her parents and siblings who had moved to Scotland a few years earlier:

As far as [coming to] Scotland is concerned, my whole family lives here. They all came one after the other. I was the last to join. All my siblings... My parents... (…) We were on our own there [in Poland] so we wanted to come here... (…) Why shouldn’t you take advantage of the opportunity to be together? (Ewa, 37, married, 3 children, Poland) (Kay and Trevena 2018: 22)

Less obviously migration-related areas of policy can also play an important role in migrant decision-making. A study of LGBT migrants from Central and Eastern Europe to Scotland found that state recognition of non-heterosexual relationships, equalities provisions and anti-discrimination legislation could influence decisions surrounding migration and settlement. Participants in the study explained that opportunities to form families, to marry, to adopt children, as well as perceived lower rates of homophobia and more prominent anti-discrimination legislation played a role, alongside economic and other motivations, in their decisions to move to and stay in Scotland (Stella et al. 2018). Dilemmas and considerations of this nature indicate the importance of holistic policy-making which takes account of the conditions and support which migrant families need in order to settle and flourish. Thus, where there is a policy desire to encourage migration and settlement to a particular region or areas, more generous policies not only facilitating entry for family members but also supporting migrant families to settle successfully can play an important role.

2. Families, integration and settlement

Clearly, the integrity of family life is a crucial aspect of well-being, and the ability to form and sustain the family can be a key part of integration in host countries. However, as the OECD has noted, family migrants ‘tend to face more integration challenges and have usually less favourable outcomes’ than economic migrants who enter and stay on their own (OECD 2017: 6). In this context, we define integration as a ‘two-way process where societal actors and institutions as well as individuals and groups “take part in” and “become part of” society’ (Eggebo and Brekke 2018). This process is multi-dimensional, spanning many domains of a migrant’s life: the structural, social, cultural, civic/political domains, as well as intersecting aspects of a migrant’s identity (Charsley et al 2016). It is important to highlight that this process of integration is not linear. Changes in an individual migrant’s and a migrant family’s life, as well as changes in the country and community in which they live, may affect how they engage and the outcomes that they experience. In particular, societal inequalities and barriers such as discrimination can drive poor integration outcomes, as much as or even more so than the characteristics or actions of the individual migrant or migrant family (Charsley et al 2016).

The dynamics of integration for families are strongly shaped by policy frameworks regulating migrants’ rights and conditions of stay, as well as programmes to support incorporation. In this respect, migrant families have distinct and additional needs from those of lone migrants (who are often assumed to be male, labour migrants). Such support may include assistance with finding work, suitable housing, education (for both children and adult family members), health, or welfare

support, especially for those in lower-earning jobs. Migrant families may also be in greater need of financial assistance or advice than native-born families since, even where they are employed at similar wage levels, they may face additional costs associated with migration. For example, remittances and a lack of accumulated wealth to invest in other forms of income generation often put them at a relative disadvantage with regard to overall household income (see Chapter 4 below).

For migrant families with children, the processes of immigrating, integrating and settling can be especially complicated and challenging. There is strong evidence that aspirations for their children’s future employment and prosperity can be the primary motivator for family migration (COFACE 2012). When children become embedded in a new environment, and particularly where parents assess that they are well integrated into the education system, this can also be a strong reason for families to extend their stay and settle long-term in an area (Ryan and Sales 2013; Kay and Trevena 2018). However, children also often require a degree of tailored support and assistance to adapt to a new school environment, to forge connections and friendships and to improve their English (Sime and Fox 2015). This can be overlooked, on the assumption that children will adapt more quickly and easily than adults. Parents may also be anxious about a new and unfamiliar system of schooling and early years care, and require additional support and culturally sensitive and linguistically accessible information and guidance.

Moreover, immigration rules and charges often make it difficult or impossible for primary migrants to move with their children, or to reunite soon after their move. Thus, children may only be able to join parents once they are sufficiently financially secure or have met accommodation or other requirements of immigration rules. This can create challenging relationships between parents and their children as well as between partners, even after family reunification (Sime 2018; Bonizzoni 2009). It can also make the process of adaptation and language learning more difficult, as children need to adjust to a new cultural context, schooling system, and so on.

Families can also face a lack of family support and affordable childcare. Migrant families are often cut off from the family members ‘who are generally crucial’ to provide childcare needs (Bonizzoni, 2009, 90). The absence of grandparents and other extended networks of family and friends can make the difficulties of arranging child care particularly acute and a barrier to women entering the workforce. While dual-earner migrant couples without children might be able to manage their working lives quite flexibly, with one or both partners potentially commuting considerable distances to work or even living away from home during the week, after the birth of children this becomes more difficult. In such scenarios, migrant women are much more likely to give up their jobs (Kõu et al 2017: 2791). Indeed, studies of highly skilled migrants in dual-earner families have found that inter-generational patterns of care can prompt return migration of families, especially where spouses (usually wives) are also highly educated (Kõu et al. 2017: 2791; Saarela and Finnäs 2013). Such return migration commonly occurs either following the birth of a child or when a grandparent is no longer able to care for themselves.

Other solutions include (temporary) migration of grandparents (mainly grandmothers) to assist with childcare, especially of very young children and infants (Plaza 2000; Barglowski et al. 2015; Bojarczuk and Muehlau 2017). In these situations, the opportunity to apply for a visitor visa allowing for a relatively long stay of family members, especially in periods of intensive care requirements, for example immediately after a birth or during periods of prolonged ill-health of a family member, can make a difference in experiences of and decisions regarding longer term settlement, as well as in supporting women’s labour market participation (Kõu et al. 2017: 2795). Kõu et al. found that the six-month family visitor visa available in the UK was welcomed by highly skilled Indian migrants, whilst the three-month parental visa available in the Netherlands was negatively evaluated and prompted some to consider leaving (Kõu et al. 2107: 2796).

Conversely, the tightening of UK regulations regarding the rights of settled migrants to bring over elderly or infirm relatives since 2012 has caused tensions and stress, and may also lead long-settled professionals and others to leave. A survey undertaken by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (BAPIO) and Association of Pakistani Physicians of Northern Europe (APPNE) in August 2020 found that, ‘91% of the respondents reported having feelings of anxiety, stress and helplessness due to this issue. Nearly 60% felt that this adversely affected their work and professionalism and 80% have thought about relocating [either to their home countries or to other countries with more flexible rules]’ (BAPIO 2021).

The common (and often internalised) trope of the ‘hardworking migrant’ can also have significant repercussions for family life. A widespread experience amongst migrant families is for both parents to work long hours, sometimes in shifts, creating challenges in achieving a work/life balance. Under these circumstances, and in the absence of wider networks of relatives and friends living locally (Sime 2018), children will be in particular need of after school provision but also of youth services, clubs and facilities for teenagers and older young people. Where families have been separated for a significant period of time, this can also create challenging relationships between parents and their children as well as between partners, even after family reunification (Sime 2018; Bonizzoni 2009).

It is also important to recognise the particular relationship challenges faced by migrant families. For couples, migration can raise issues of power and access, disrupt identity, and upset gender norms and expectations since the migrant spouse or partner usually has fewer legal, social and professional resources and opportunities than the sponsoring spouse or partner (Bonjour and Kraler 2015). Migration can reinforce or exacerbate dependencies and tensions within couples (Strasser et al 2009). Income requirements can prove especially taxing on a couple if the destination country’s migration or labour market policies limit or prevent the migrant spouse or partner from access to paid work. In systems where residence permits are contingent on sustaining the relationship, this creates a further form of dependency on the sponsor, which may make them unwilling or unable to leave an abusive or exploitative relationship (Bonjour and Kraler 2015). More generally, policy approaches that focus predominantly on labour migration have been criticised for separating the economic sphere, typically associated with males and the world of work, from the social, ‘linked with females and the private sphere’ (Kofman 2004: 256). This false separation may overlook the impacts and contributions of other members of migrant families and households to the labour market and wider economy, making false assumptions about the education levels and employment activities of spouses (Kofman 2004: 248).

In order for integration policies and support services to meet the needs of migrant families effectively, consideration needs to be given to the diverse experiences of families, and their understandings of family life. This can be particularly significant in regard to family-related caring roles and responsibilities, and how they are divided amongst members of both immediate and more extended family, as well as how such division of roles articulates with opportunities and (in)equalities in other areas of life. Migrant experiences of ‘family migration’ often go beyond what is formally recognised by migration policies as ‘family’. These may include relationships with friends or significant others which are not (yet) formalised, or relationships with extended family both in the UK and in the country of origin. A wide variety of culturally embedded expectations of intergenerational care, support and household membership of extended family members underpin migrant definitions and experiences of family (Kõu et al, 2017). Importantly, these vary depending not only on the country of origin, but also levels of education, religious beliefs and ethnicity, rural/urban background of different groups of migrants. Family responsibilities and divisions of labour can be significant for decision-making regarding patterns of migration and for experiences of settlement.

While host country support measures should be aware of varied cultural expectations and practical aspects of family lives, this should not become a mono-dimensional, universalising or romanticised view of migrant families. Understanding the importance of and facilitating extended family caring and support can be crucial to successful integration and the ability of families to thrive in a new country. But it should also be recognised that escaping some of the constraints and expectations of family can be a reason for and benefit of migration for some, as has been shown for example in recent studies with LGBT migrants (Stella et al. 2018); and with women migrants at different stages in the family life cycle (Kõu et al 2017: 2797; Kay and Trevena 2018). As argued by Kõu et al., ‘Migration can therefore be viewed as a pathway towards individualism, especially in the gender dimension’ (Kõu et al 2017: 2801). Policies and practical training and support for service providers need to allow time and resource to be invested in ‘getting to know’ different groups of migrants living in an area and tailoring support and services to their needs and aspirations.

The many challenges of new economic, social and cultural contexts, as well as time-consuming processes of establishing and maintaining working lives and meeting family responsibilities leave many migrant families with very little time or energy for the work of integration and engagement with civic and community activities or even language learning and professional development (SSAMIS 2016). These realities feed into equalities issues and can reinforce social distance between, and mutually negative assumptions about, host and new migrant populations (Kay and Trevena 2021).


  • Families and relationships play a central role in decisions relation to migration and settlement. Such decisions are driven not only by economic considerations (enhancing the economic well-being of the family), but also by social and cultural expectations and aspirations – for example, the desire to give children a better education.
  • Families often move in a sequence: a ‘pioneer’ migrant may migrate first, to reduce uncertainties related to the move, followed by other family members, once the ‘pioneer’ has found work, housing, and a better understanding of the place of destination. This may imply protracted periods of separation.
  • Family decisions are deeply influenced by policy frameworks for migrant workers; these define which family members may move, what their rights will be, and what kind of support they will receive. Where such frameworks do not accommodate family structures and needs, migrant families may attempt to circumvent the rules.
  • Migrant families often face greater challenges in integrating. They are likely to bear greater financial costs; may struggle to navigate childcare and schooling systems; and may require particular support in forging connections and friendships in local communities.
  • A particular challenge is finding affordable childcare to enable both parents to work, as families will be cut off from their normal family and friendship networks. In many cultures, grandparents play a crucial role in childcare, and this will not be available for most migrants – noting that EU migrants were an exception, as free movement rights allowed migrants to be accompanied by extended family.
  • 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.
  • The many challenges of new economic, social and cultural contexts, and the time-consuming task of maintaining working lives and meeting family responsibilities, leave many migrant families with very little time or energy for integration and engagement with local communities.



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