The belief that marriage partners from less developed countries are bad for ‘integration’ is firmly held by European policy makers. With pressure to curb immigration, that concern has conveniently justified raising the bar for spouses to enter.
Marriage Migration and Integration interrogates that assumption with substantial evidence from an ESRC funded study on transnational marriages in two of the largest minority communities in the UK: Pakistani Muslims and Indian Sikhs. Negative discourses focus on Muslim marriages in particular – hence the value of the comparison the study provides.
Led by Katharine Charsley (University of Bristol) in collaboration with Oxford colleagues, the study uncovered the first clear evidence of a fall in the number of transnational marriages in both groups. Yet around half British Pakistani Muslims and a quarter of British Indian Sikhs currently have partners from the Indian subcontinent.
Coined a ‘first generation in every generation’, the assumption is that the new family member, with less egalitarian social norms, drags social progress back from modern values; and that they are individuals whose lack of education and skills will impede their own integration and that of their partner and future children.
Yet the evidence supporting that assertion is limited; and uses problematic notions of ‘integration’, a concept rightly subject in recent years to severe critiques. This study used a ‘whole society’ concept and new definition of integration that recognises the crucial role played by the opportunities and barriers individuals face, and the differing pace and impact of integration processes across different spheres of life. The ways in which experiences in one sphere, such as employment, impact on others is a constant theme in the substantial analysis of the Labour Force Survey and qualitative interview data which form the backbone of the book.
Writing about integration is like untangling a complicated knot—identifying the strands and teasing apart their relationships to each other. Pulling one strand or another first will expose particular sets of inter-relationships in a different order. In this case, to disentangle the impact of transnational marriage among other factors, the study explored the trajectories of a unique sampling of sibling pairs: couples in which both partners are UK born or raised and transnational couples where one partner came to the UK as an adult. The research design focused on families in which both couples could be found.
Exploring experiences in employment, education, extended family living, social networks and participation in community life, along with gender roles and belonging, the findings not surprisingly reveal a diversity of experiences that include – but also significantly depart from the simplistic characterisations of the trope.
Spouses face similar challenges to other migrants, but they have one advantage – a family who can provide knowledge, support and connections. Most migrant husbands find work through family contacts. Families’ resources and attitudes are, however, not uniform. For newcomers, information, signposting and support to reduce reliance on relatives for awareness of opportunities would help, as would more flexible opportunities to access language classes.
The irony of a simplistic portrayal of transnational marriage is that it reinforces the negative stereotypes that are themselves a barrier to integration. It should be possible to address gender inequality, and advocate services, without denigrating the family practices of entire ethnic groups. Instead of finger-pointing at newcomers, we could focus on unlocking the assets people bring – the under-use of migrants’ educational qualifications for instance – and the benefits of facilitating the full participation of all residents in the country’s economic, social, cultural and political life.
Marriage Migration and Integration (2020, Palgrave Macmillan)
Authors: Katharine Charsley, Marta Bolognani, Evelyn Ersanilli & Sarah Spencer
This new book provides the first sustained empirical evidence on the relationships between marriage migration and processes of integration
Read further about the Marriage Migration and Integration project.