Marriage migration and integration


Around a quarter of British Indian Sikhs, and half of British Pakistani Muslims have a spouse who migrated to the UK as an adult, making these two of the largest British ethnic groups involved in this kind of transnational marriage.

In recent years, such marriages have increasingly been seen as an obstacle to integration – with suggested implications ranging from poverty to lack of attachment to the UK, and persistent gender inequality. In Britain, as in some other European countries, the demands of integration now also feature in justification for restrictions on spousal immigration, such as the income requirement for sponsors introduced in 2012.

It is surprising to many to learn that the empirical research on relationships between marriage migration and integration has actually been rather limited, and has produced varying results.

In our report we set out the findings of new research. Whilst some existing knowledge is confirmed – migrant wives from India and Pakistan, for example, are less likely to be in paid employment than British Pakistani Muslim and British Indian Sikh women, and rates of employment are particularly low amongst migrant Pakistani wives – other assumptions are challenged.

For the British Indian Sikh and British Pakistani Muslims interviewed, for example, being married to a migrant was not associated with a lack of attachment to Britain.

For some British Pakistani women, rather than a transnational marriage being a sign of traditionalism or creating more patriarchal domestic relationships, marriage to a migrant enhanced their autonomy. Whilst British families often expected that a wife from the subcontinent would have more traditional gender role expectations, some migrant wives had high levels of education and strong aspirations around work and careers.

However, integration is a two-way process influenced not just by characteristics of the migrant, but also those of the society into which they arrive. So whether and how quickly migrant spouses were able to use their skills and education in the labour market depended on a range of factors including not just family support, but also matters of policy, local opportunities, and discrimination.

Integration is a widely used term, but refers to a complex range of processes across several aspects of life: social, structural (e.g. the labour market), cultural, civic and political, and issues of identity. It can be tempting to select a particular marker in one of these areas (e.g. engagement in the labour force) and use it as short-hand for integration as a whole, but evidence from this project suggests this approach is often inaccurate.

In some cases, processes in the various fields of integration do progress together – as when a newly arrived migrant spouse finds employment and develops social networks with colleagues through which they learn more about local culture. But they can also be in tension, for example if a migrant husband’s long working hours in low-wage employment leave little time to make new social networks or engage in civic activities. And they are not always even clearly connected – so if migrant spouses did not develop a British identity (and continuing to identify with the country in which you were raised is not surprising) this did not appear as an impediment to other processes of integration.

In comparison with many other categories of migrants, marriage migrants’ connections with their British partner and in-laws are an important potential advantage, providing information, contacts and support. But families vary in their knowledge and resources, and in the expectations they may have of their new member. Marriage migrants also simultaneously enter a new country and a phase of life (marriage and childrearing) when social activity often focusses on the family, and pressures to earn are greatest, creating patterns in processes of integration which can change again at later stages of life.

These insights have several implications for policy and practice:

  • There is a clear need for information and signposting for arriving spouses. Receiving families initially fulfil this role, but have varying knowledge, resources and expectations.
  • Challenges faced by migrant husbands are less widely recognised than those affecting migrant wives, forming a gap in service provision.
  • Integration interventions for migrant spouses should take account of gender and life-course:
    • Pre-migration – practical information about life in the UK could be offered with language training.
    • Arrival – often a window of opportunity before migrants find work and/or have children for provision of information, training and other opportunities.
    • Childrearing – often a period of time pressures from work and caring. Space for encouraging and supporting engagement could still be found in community groups, schools, and workplaces.
    • Later in life – initial patterns of integration are not set in stone, with room for initiatives targeting later life stages.
  • Perceptions of equality are a pre-requisite for integration. Hence, action is needed to address stereotypes, build understanding, and avoid policies and discourse on marriage-related immigration being viewed as having unjust impacts on, or being targeted towards, particular communities.

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