Jonathan Chaloff and Friedrich Poeschel, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs
Migration is all over the news in Europe, North America and Australia. When people think about migration, they tend to picture either refugees driven to undertake dangerous journeys in order to escape threatening situations or people coming to a new country to pursue studies or work. Yet there is a large category of migrants all too often overlooked: family migrants. Such migrants accounted for 40% of migration to the OECD area in 2015 and they typically make up 25-50% of an OECD country’s foreign-born population – and as much as 70% in the United States.
Why is family migration receiving so little attention? In part because family migration is often seen as a natural derivative of other categories of migration, one that takes place automatically based on international conventions and human rights. The lack of attention may also be due to the diversity of family migrants as a group: they migrate for various family-related reasons and have diverse demographic profiles. One family migrant may be an infant, moving with his or her parents or as part of an international adoption. Another may be a parent or grandparent, rejoining an adult migrant who moved to the destination country long ago. And there are also those who migrate to “follow their heart” – forming a family with a native-born partner (in many OECD countries, at least 10% of marriages are between a citizen and a foreigner), joining a partner who has already migrated or accompanying a spouse who is a labour migrant.
A closer look at family migrants does reveal some common characteristics, however. If family migrants are predominantly female, men typically comprise at least 40%. Family also tend to be younger than labour migrants, and are more likely to settle permanently in their new countries. Their education level tends to be related to that of their spouse, with those who come to join a citizen of the destination country, or who arrive together with a labour migrant, better educated, on average, than those who reunite with partners or marry a migrant later on. In most countries however the education of family migrants has been increasing recently. Once arrived, family migrants generally struggle to enter the labour market, taking 15 to 20 years, notably in Europe, to reach the same employment rate as native-born people. This may be due to the fact that family migrants do not come with a job offer in hand but also to family migrants’ often limited abilities in the host-country language.
What does this mean for governments and migrants alike? Whenever close family relationships are involved, stakes are high. It’s true that family migration levels can, to a certain extent, be anticipated more than other migration flows, and immigration authorities thus can be prepared to deal with them. And family ties are not automatic grounds for migration: in practice, family migration is subject to restrictions and requirements.But establishing the right mix of requirements is challenging and policy makers have to balance different priorities and constraints. How long should family migrants have to wait to be reunited? On the one hand, short waits accelerate the integration of children in schools and allow families to be together; on the other, longer waits may be needed to ensure income and housing requirements are met. Yet restrictions may make a country less attractive for sought-after labour migrants, who want to bring their families. And while language requirements and other conditions may effectively speed up the integration of family migrants, they may also delay or prevent it. Finally, what about migrants who are joining citizens to form a family? Should the same conditions apply to them?
With migration comes family! This is a simple fact of life and it is time to give family migration more attention. This may be a difficult area for policy makers, but it cannot be ignored. Further analysis of policy trade-offs and bottlenecks, as well as better data, will go a long way to providing a firm basis for future family migration policies.
Links and further reading
European Commission (2016), European Migration Network report on practices in family reunification