Is it family migration if only one family member moves? Reflections on categories of migrants and classifications of migration

Published 30 July 2013 / By COMPAS Communications

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Family migration has recently been in the spotlight in the UK. The 9th of July marked the first anniversary of the family immigration rules that have caused heartache and adversity for many families in the UK and which Sarah Spencer wrote about last year on this blog.  Just a month before that, the All-Parliamentary Group on Migration released its report on how these rules have impacted families in the UK. The Home Office also recently proposed the idea of a £3,000 short-term visitors bond for prospective visitors – including those with family members living in the UK – from six so-called ‘high risk’ African and Asian countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), though this has already come under criticism.

family hands piggy bankI followed these policy debates closely as part of my doctoral research on transnational Kenyan families in London and Nairobi. Though I encountered during my fieldwork some instances of migrants from Kenya who had or were trying to bring their fiancé(e)/ spouse and/ or children into the UK, I met many more interlocutors who did not conform to the typical definitions of who family migrants are. Their migration stories and experiences also challenged some of the implicit assumptions of these policies.  It led me to wonder whether the middle-aged women from Kenya I worked among, many of whom are nurses, can be considered family migrants if their spouses and children remain in Kenya. In other words, is it family migration if only one family member moves? Reflecting on how migrants are categorised and human mobility is classified problematises policy definitions and reveals their underlying assumptions, thus providing insight into discrepancies between policy and lived experience.

Kenyan nurses as economic migrants?
My middle-aged women interlocutors from Kenya largely migrated to the UK in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many of them moved to take up skilled positions as nurses in the NHS. They moved on their own, while their husbands and children remained in Kenya.  When I spoke with them about their migration, most told me that they had moved in order ‘to meet their family’s needs’.

At first glance, both their migration to work as nurses and their stated reason for migrating suggest that they be understood as ‘economic migrants’ and their movement as a form of ‘labour migration’.[1] Yet, in doing so, the ‘economic’ is approached as a discrete domain isolated from the rest of their lives, cutting off consideration of how economic concerns interrelate with other factors. As Vigh comments, ‘although economic gain and social possibilities are often related, they are most definitely not identical’ (2009: 93).  Focusing solely on the material gains these women likely accrued through their migration is reductionist and obfuscates the complex motivations and aspirations that propelled them to leave Kenya.  It also overlooks their previous histories of migration and the cultural acceptability of migration among Kenyans, both migrants and non-migrants.

Defining family migration
If definitions of economic migrants focus primarily on the material benefits of migration, then family migration is defined in relational terms, that is, through the relationships between those who have moved and those who are subsequently entitled to move. From a policy perspective, the ‘family’ in family migration is defined by the state and refers to spouses and dependent children typically under the age of 18. Kofman offers a helpful typology of family migration in the UK and the European Union more generally, though she points out that these different types of movement are not necessarily captured in statistical data (2004: 246-247). The first type is family reunification whereby the primary migrants bring immediate family members (typically that includes spouses, children, and parents) to live with them in the UK. Marriage migration, the second type, refers to the processes by which a fiancé(e) or spouse is brought into the country. The final type of family migration is where the entire family migrates together.

In addition to the culturally specific definition of a ‘nuclear’ family described above which precludes the inclusion of parents and/ or siblings, there are two other noteworthy premises on which family migration policies are based. The first is the normative presumption that families live together physically in the same household. A related premise, which makes sense given that these policies are intended to facilitate and, importantly, regulate settlement, is that family migrants are presumed to want to settle in the place to which they migrate. Yet this also suggests that a sedentary life, rather than shifting periods of mobility and sedentariness over the course of one’s life (cf. de Bruijn et al. 2001: 2-3) is seen as the norm.

The migration of middle-aged women from Kenya — Another kind of family migrant
My middle-aged women interlocutors came of age in post-independent 1960s Kenya with all the attendant promises of development and modernisation. As young women, they migrated into Nairobi from rural areas to finish their studies and take up their first jobs. They were thus internal migrants prior to their international migration; several had also completed some of their professional training in the UK in the 1970s and 1980s before returning to Kenya. For such women, physical and social mobility have long been intertwined in their aspirations for a stable, respectable middle class life.

stamping passportIn light of this history and context, it is perhaps not surprising that the prospect of parents living apart from their children for extended periods is not seen as culturally problematic, though that is not to say these families do not experience sadness and difficulty because of the separations.  At the same time, most of my interlocutors said they did not intend to stay in the UK indefinitely, but would instead return to Kenya when they retire.  As Sørenson and Olwig point out, ‘ populations do not necessarily migrate to start a new life elsewhere, but rather to search out new opportunities that may allow them to enhance and diversify livelihoods practiced and valued back home’ (2002:1).  Thus, these women’s migration made possible the kind of lives they wanted for their families in Nairobi.

Categorising and classifying: Gaps between policy and lived experience
In these ways I would suggest that, even though only one family member moved, older Kenyan women are more productively seen as family migrants, not economic ones, whose migration is helpfully understood within the wider context of their families and the lives they desire for themselves and their children (cf. Cooke 2008: 260). Doing so necessitates adopting a historical and contextual approach (in other words, an anthropological one) that integrates the question of who moves with those of why they move and under what circumstances.

The UK government’s (im)migration policies are designed to provide guidance for addressing issues related to human mobility across its national borders and, in doing so, shape particular conceptualisations of who migrants are. Yet the complex, multidimensional lives of migrants defy the straightforward application of these policies.  It is in this gap between policy and lived experience that contradictions and messiness arise, contributing to tensions that play out in daily life around the UK.

Cooke, Thomas J. 2008. Migration in a family way. Population, Space and Place 14 (4): 255-265.

de Bruijn, Miriam, Rijk van Djik, and Dick Foeken. 2001. Mobile Africa: An introduction. In Mobile Africa: Changing Patterns of Movement in Africa and Beyond. Ed. Miriam de Bruijn, Rijk van Dijk, and Dick Foeken. Leiden: Brill.

Kofman, Eleonore. 2004. Family-related migration: A critical review of European studies. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 30 (2): 243-262.

Sørensen, Nina Nyberg and Karen Fog Olwig. 2002. Mobile livelihoods: Making a living in the world. In Work and Migration: Life and Livelihoods in a Globalizing World. Ed. Nina Nyberg Sørensen and Karen Fog Olwig. London: Routledge.

Vigh, Henrik E. 2009. Wayward migration: On imagined futures and technological voids. Ethnos 74 (1): 91-109.

[1] See the International Organization for Migration’s definitions of these terms: