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.

5 Practice in Supporting Migrant Families

The Scottish Government is committed to supporting families by ensuring that children and young people ‘grow up feeling loved, safe and respected’ and ‘realise their full potential’. Furthermore, the Government’s vision is to create a fairer Scotland where people across all communities ‘are healthier, happier and treated with respect, and where opportunities, wealth and power are spread more equally’. These commitments underline the importance of supporting all families, including migrant families, to realise their potential and thrive, enabling them to make a positive contribution to society. Moreover, supporting families can help to meet Scotland’s population goals, by encouraging permanent settlement in areas facing depopulation.

In this chapter, we draw on the analysis in the previous chapters to consider what kinds of lessons can be learned about effective policies to support family migration and migrant families. We set out ten suggestions on how policy at UK, Scottish or local authority level could better support migrant families. We also provide some examples of good practice which could help inform such approaches.

1. Enable family migration to remote and rural areas through bespoke schemes

Remote and rural areas of Scotland are in particular need of family migration to help mitigate the effects of population ageing and decline. However, as we saw in Chapter 2, families are less likely to settle in remote areas compared to cities, exacerbating the challenges for these areas in mitigating population ageing and decline.

In previous EAG reports, we explored a range of approaches to recruiting migrants to settle in different areas of Scotland, including remote and rural areas. Our reports on immigration policy and demographic change (2019), and on migration to remote and rural areas (2021), summarised examples of good practice from Canada, Australia and European countries. Some key findings were:

  • the importance of job offers or viable employment opportunities in places of destination
  • the need to offer a generous package of rights and pathways to permanent settlement
  • the need to work with stakeholders, including local authorities, employers and community groups, to develop support packages to facilitate settlement
  • the feasibility of schemes that involve differentiated approaches across regions, to accommodate diverging demographic, social and labour market contexts.

A number of schemes represent good practice in promoting settlement of families, including engaging local communities in facilitating migration to remoter areas. For example, the recently launched Rural and Northern Immigration Pilot Program in Canada involves local communities in recruiting and facilitating migrant employment in a localised context. The Canadian Atlantic Immigration Pilot Programme offers a similar model through its partnership approach. Both of these schemes build in support for migrant families.

We suggest that the Scottish Government continue to explore options for a pilot scheme to facilitate migration to remote and rural areas, which would place emphasis on attracting and supporting the settlement of migrant families.

2. Facilitate family reunion by removing the minimum income requirement

The current minimum income requirement for UK residents wishing to be joined by a non-UK partner creates a range of social and economic challenges. As we saw in Chapter 2, not only does it create differential rights across earning groups, it also impacts the spatial distribution of migration across Scotland. Since higher-earning employment is disproportionately concentrated in urban areas, residents in remote, rural and post-industrial towns are far less likely to meet the minimum income requirement for family reunion. This may exacerbate existing disparities in the geographic spread of migration across different types of areas.

There are also compelling social reasons for rethinking the minimum income requirement. The requirement can lead to a lag in family reunion, implying that children only arrive in the UK/Scotland after a number of years. As the OECD has argued, such a lag can negatively affect children’s language learning, school attainment and longer-term educational and labour market performance in the host country (OECD 2017). Research shows that children who arrive in the host country and enter the school system at an earlier age have much greater prospects of success (Hou and Bonikowska, 2016). The OECD also suggests allowing young children to accompany their migrating parents upon admission, through shortening administrative procedures or waiting periods for children to join their parents; and providing clear information to sponsors about possibilities to reunite with their families (OECD 2017).

From a labour market perspective, we note that the Swedish approach specifically rejects income thresholds as a condition for family reunion, on the assumption that partners will be incentivised to become economically active to supplement household income. In line with this approach, discontinuation of the minimum income requirement could be accompanied by more proactive support for dependants in finding suitable employment when they arrive (see below).

3. Better information for family members pre-arrival

We saw in Chapters 1 and 3 that family members, and especially ‘dependent’ partners, are often under-employed in the labour market. Although migrant families where both partners are non-nationals are more likely to have multiple household members with degrees, they are less likely to see both partners working. Typical constraints to work are likely to be lack of affordable or accessible childcare, difficulties navigating the labour market, or a failure of employers to recognise or value qualifications and skills.

In its 2021 population strategy, the Scottish Government committed to ‘explore how we and partners can offer a support package to those who wish to move and work in Scotland, including support around housing, spousal recruitment and family support where needed’ (Scottish Government 2021). There are a range of approaches that could contribute to this goal.

The OECD recommends that institutions, organisations and stakeholders in the host countries (whether local authorities, employers or NGOs) provide information about life in the new country prior to entry. This could include helping family members to understand the labour market and job opportunities, find out about language learning and training opportunities, and navigate childcare and schooling facilities, all of which can help ‘dependent’ migrants enter the labour market when they arrive. Such an approach is proposed in the recent Population Strategy, which notes that Scottish Government is developing a Talent Attraction and Retention Service for Scotland, providing information and advice to support migrants before (and after) arriving in Scotland (Scottish Government 2021).

There are a variety of examples of good practice already available within Scotland where this type of information and support is provided, for example, by larger employers or local authorities. As discussed in Chapter 1, employers are more likely to provide such services for highly skilled workers and professionals coming to work, for example in oil and gas companies in Aberdeen, or Scottish universities. These employers often offer ‘induction’ or support packages, and can also put migrants in touch with other employees, or with other employees’ migrant family members, to create a network that provides informal advice (e.g. on housing, local nurseries or schools, registering with doctors and dentists, career pathways and volunteering or training opportunities) as well as opportunities for socialising and peer support.

For smaller employers, it may be helpful to establish wider networks, which might be coordinated by local authorities and involve NGOs and relevant citizens advice and careers service. In our previous EAG report ‘Internal migration in Scotland and the UK’ we discussed the example of Inverclyde Local Authority’s ‘Inverclyde Living’ campaign (EAG 2020: 40-41). While this campaign focused primarily on attracting new residents to the area from within the UK (or even Scotland), it offers some useful lessons on how to provide families with pre-arrival information, helping them to plan moves better, and understanding the implications for various aspects of family life and the opportunities and career prospects of family members. The campaign was launched with the creation of a website and branding for the general promotion of Inverclyde. As well as offering financial incentives and support for new start-up businesses, the campaign included a package of information and support for individuals and families. Families interested in moving to Inverclyde were offered relocation assistance, including tours of local amenities and services (e.g. schools, leisure facilities).

Innovative tools and information services that are available more generally might also be combined with locally tailored support packages to assist with job search, application and interview skills. For example, the WORKEEN app developed by the EU-funded Sirius project with the aim of supporting labour market integration of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, as well as young unemployed people of any background, is designed to help with soft skills development and understanding of the expectations and etiquette linked to seeking employment in a number of European countries, including the UK. The app is currently available in English and in six other languages: Arabic, Czech, Farsi, Finnish, French, Italian. Although focused on entry-level and lower skilled/manual jobs, the app could be expanded and adapted to include other languages and cater for a wider range of potential applicants and jobs.

4. Support family members to find suitable work

Once they have arrived, migrant families should have access to bespoke advice on employment, so that partners/dependants have an opportunity to use their skills in the labour market. One of the impediments to accessing suitable work is recognition of skills and qualifications. The recent Scottish Government population strategy commits to delivering Skills Recognition Scotland, to support the recognition of skills and qualifications, and support employers in recruiting migrants with suitable qualifications. We would encourage the Scottish Government to ensure this scheme also covers dependant family members of sponsors or primary migrants who have moved to Scotland to join their family.

Such support may also involve fostering entrepreneurship, including advice on accessing finance and support services, and training and mentorship to encourage business acumen and marketing skills. One example of such support is found in the ‘Stepping Stones to Small Business’ programme in Australia, which provides micro-enterprise support to migrant women. In the context of Scotland’s refugee resettlement programme, Argyll and Bute local authority have offered a best-practice model of support for migrant enterprise, in collaboration with the local Business

Gateway advisement services. The model is grounded in a ‘person-centred’ approach to ensure that people are provided with all the necessary assistance in understanding the financial and regulatory landscape and assisting them to develop viable business plans, to clearly identify and fill gaps in local markets, and to access funding and premises. As part of their engagement with researchers exploring governance and local integration of migrants and refugees across four European countries, including Scotland, Scottish Government enterprise policymakers noted that they intended to use the ‘Bute model’ to inform entrepreneurial support elsewhere’.

Another option is to facilitate or fast-track skills recognition or training, to allow migrants to transition to skilled work. Such an initiative could draw on the experience of the recent fast-track initiatives developed by the Scottish Government in response to rising un/underemployment as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. This included a range of measures to match skills to vacancies, to allow for retraining and upskilling of those with relevant experience and qualifications and to work with employers to support apprenticeships and placements. With suitable adaptation, similar schemes could be developed to tackle un/under employment amongst ‘dependent’ migrant family members and might represent a short-term investment to yield a longer-term gain in terms of their potential contribution to Scotland’s economic, social and cultural development.

Given expanding opportunities for flexible and remote working, local authorities could also consider establishing physical hubs with office spaces. This could facilitate both partners being able to work, while being based in remoter areas of Scotland – thereby supplementing household incomes, and also making life in rural areas more viable. The Scottish Government has proposed that groups of employers across public and private sector could establish such work hubs in disused buildings in town centres, providing a base for people working remotely (Scottish Government, 2021).

Support should be provided in a flexible way to accommodate childcare responsibilities – for example, by offering parent and child sessions, or offering crèche care to children while courses or advice sessions are being offered. A good example of such an approach is found in Germany and France, where language courses are offered to parents at schools where their children attend.

5. Facilitate access to childcare

As we saw in Chapter 1, finding suitable childcare can be a major impediment to employment, especially for women who move as ‘dependants’. Migrant families will be cut off from their extended family and support networks, and inability to access such childcare will be a decisive factor in the ability of partners to work, and even in decisions to stay. One key way of facilitating access to childcare is to provide more information on the range of services available in the area. Such information may be best provided through informal networks, whether these are colleagues in larger organisations, networks of migrants for example through ESOL groups.

Also critical is the issue of childcare costs. Scotland offers subsidised childcare for 3 and 4 years olds as well as some 2 year olds under the Early Learning and Childcare entitlement (currently 16 hours per week, rising to 30 hours from August 2021). In Scotland, this provision is universal, in contrast to England, where migrants with no recourse to public funds only have access to 15 hours, not the full 30 hours; access is contingent on a residency requirement, which typically involves ILR, pre-settled or settled status, or refugee leave. We suggest that Scottish employers, local authorities and support agencies could work together better to ensure that information about this universal entitlement is actively signposted to those planning a move, as well as to newly arrived migrant families. This would facilitate both partners staying economically active, and also encourage earlier reunification with children in the host country.

All working families with young children face challenges navigating childcare arrangements around their work, and migrant families may find this especially difficult. As noted above, employers, local authorities and other citizen/NGOs can play an important role in providing advice and support to migrant families, for example through making them aware of their right to request flexible working arrangements, understanding part-time work and job-share opportunities, and exploring options for remote working.

6. Establish advice hubs

A number of countries have established networks of hubs to provide comprehensive support and services for migrants. Such hubs could provide a package of support for integration, including legal support, advice on access to public services and welfare, assistance with language and other skills development, finding employment and entrepreneurship, and potentially office space with wifi for remote working (see point 4 above). They could also be the source of more co-ordinated pre-arrival information (as recommended under point 3 above). In order to be successful, such hubs would need involvement of multiple agencies – employers, education, welfare rights, office space/pop-up offices.

Such hubs could help migrant families to develop a personalised plan for integration. This could build on the Scottish Refugee Council toolkit, which engages refugees in developing and implementing a personalised integration plan. This could potentially be adapted and extended for all migrant families.

There are also a range of schemes in other OECD countries which could be further examined, to learn relevant lessons for Scotland. For example, Portugal has ‘one-stop-shop’ integration centres, some of which are mobile for migrants who are transitory or on the move, to connect them with a variety of services and provide a welcoming presence. Australia runs a national network of community hubs to support migrant and refugee parents and children navigate the education system. Such hubs could be open to both migrants and long-term residents/citizens and families, depending on need.

7. Promote community and migrant peer networks

Isolation, loneliness and difficulties establishing networks and social ties can be particularly challenging issues for family migrants who arrive into Scotland without a job and without the routines, sociality and networks that jobs provide. They may also fall under the radar of integration services targeted at benefit recipients, due to rules on no recourse to public funds (OECD 2017: 6). It is therefore important to provide services and initiatives tailored to ensure that family migrants access opportunities to meet others in their community and to develop networks with both other migrants and long-term residents.

Scotland already has a good network of ESOL provision, and many community-based classes are available free of charge to migrants with any visa status. However, bursaries for college-based ESOL courses previously available to EU migrants are at risk and accredited courses working towards more advanced qualifications or combining ESOL with vocational courses can be costly. As Scotland’s ESOL strategy is now being integrated into a wider strategy for adult learning it will be important to ensure that sufficient funding is still available to maintain provision, including in more rural locations, and a new system of bursaries for college-based courses could usefully be developed.

Community-based ESOL cafes and classes tailored to employability needs have been developed in a number of areas, including for example in Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen City, Angus and Argyll

and Bute. These provide opportunities for learner-led programmes of discussion and learning, and often include information about local facilities and services and trips to places of interest. Such initiatives usually involve native speakers and longer-settled migrants as volunteers, thereby supporting social integration and the cultivation of social networks. At both local and national government levels, more could be done to support such community-based initiatives through platforms for sharing information and best-practice and facilitating access to funding, which is currently often short-term and insecure.

8. Help find suitable accommodation

Finding suitable accommodation can be a major challenge for families, who will have particular needs related to children and proximity to childcare and schools and may have limited knowledge of local housing markets. This can place families under pressure when they arrive, and may hinder migrants from finding suitable accommodation especially in less densely populated areas. For these reasons, swift access to suitable and affordable rental accommodation can make a big difference to families.

As we saw in Chapter 3, migrant families are more likely to rent housing over a number of years, rather than purchasing. This may reflect uncertainty about future plans, limited capital for deposits, as well as cultural differences in patterns of rental/purchase (noting that it is far more the norm to rent accommodation in most European countries). This implies the need to focus on making appropriate rental accommodation accessible to families.

The Orkney Gateway programme offers an example of an innovative solution in this regard. The local authority identifies empty homes to be offered as secure 12- to 18-month lets and matches these with new residents’ needs and preferences, allowing them an initial period to get used to Island life before making a longer term commitment through, for example, purchasing property. Community refurbishment and renovation schemes also assist the owners of empty properties to prepare them for rental and/or sale, thus helping to balance housing supply and demand on the island.

9. Reduce the costs of settlement

As we saw in Chapter 2, the costs of applying for indefinite leave to remain and/or citizenship can be prohibitive for families, especially those with children. Yet providing this form of stability can greatly enhance their sense of security, local integration, and likelihood to settle. As we saw in Chapter 1, citizenship status is also associated with higher earnings of migrants.

Current ILR and citizenship fees are very high in comparison to other OECD countries. While there is a case for such fees covering administrative processing costs, the evidence offers a compelling case for significantly reducing such fees, from the perspective of both migrant families and host societies. The case for reducing fees is especially compelling for Scotland, given the goal of encourage settlement and integration across all areas of Scotland.

10. Join up pockets of good practice

As we have seen above, there is a wealth of good practice in supporting migrant families across local authorities and local communities in Scotland. However, all too often, localised good practice is fragmented, informal, and not joined up as part of national or LA practice.

While it is important to retain a local flavour and to tailor information and advice to local realities, there is a role for more national level co-ordination, pooling and guidance regarding best practice and allocation of funding and resource to support such schemes. This aligns with

recommendations in our previous report ‘Designing a Pilot Remote and Rural Migration Scheme for Scotland: Analysis and Policy Options’ where we argued for the role of national government in resourcing and co-ordinating locally based multi-agency and stakeholder partnerships to support migrant integration (EAG 2021). It also reflects the findings of research into support for labour market integration of migrants and refugees in Scotland.

We would encourage Scottish Government and local authorities to analyse and learn from pockets of good practice, and seek ways to join up, expand and effectively resource successful initiatives. Relatively small investments can make a significant different to migrant families, helping to provide support for them to thrive.


We have set out ten suggestions on how policy at UK, Scottish or local authority level could better support migrant families.



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