Restrictive measures on family migration, such as income requirements, pre-entry language and integration tests, and age limits, reduce the number of applications submitted and residence permits granted for family migrants. Consequently, restrictive policies unavoidably lead to family separation, which according to existing research can have a serious negative impact on families’ and children’s mental health, well-being and integration.

In the new report “Family migration and integration: a literature review”, Jan-Paul Brekke and I have reviewed review existing research and present a wide range of national and comparative studies from Norway and other OECD-countries. This research  shows that family migration is commonly portrayed as a barrier to integration, and concerns over integration are used strategically to justify increasingly strict family immigration regulations, yet, there is little empirical support for such claims.

A main finding is that regulations have selective effects on admissions within the family category. Applicants are affected differently on the basis of their own and the sponsors’ gender, country of origin, age and educational level. For example, the family members of female and ethnic minority sponsors are affected more negatively by strict income requirements due to the fact that these groups, on average, have a weaker position in the labour market than native-born men. These selective effects are rarely stated as an explicit aim of introducing stricter regulations, but selective effects are clearly documented and are probably intended by policy-makers, even though they do not figure as explicit arguments for the policy measures.

Some studies indicate that family migration regulations may have positive effects on some aspects on integration. For example, a Norwegian study of an income requirement show that this regulation is an incentive for migrant sponsors to increased labour market participation and earnings. Also, some evidence suggests that language and civic integration requirements have a positive effect on host country language acquisition and labour market outcomes for family migrations passing the tests. Other studies show that the integration effects of such measures are modest at best, that migrants experience these tests as a burden, and that families are separated as a result of restrictions.

Post-migration access to rights, language courses and labour markets in the host country probably have a stronger effect on integration than immigration regulations. Looking at the dimension of value integration, a Danish study (Schmidt 2014) indicates that restrictive family migration regulations that target the migrant population may cause resentment amongst established ethnic minority groups, and possibly threaten social cohesion. Additionally, the high level of complexity and the frequent changes of the body of regulation may be considered a challenge to a just and transparent rule of law.

A central aspect of family immigration regulations is that they presuppose and further the family migrants’ dependency on the sponsor. In all OECD countries, family migrants are subject to waiting periods before they can achieve a permanent residence permit independent of their relationship to the sponsor. During the waiting period, marriage migrants will lose their residence permit if the couple divorces. This legal dependency adds to the situation of social and economic dependency on the sponsor that marriage migrants commonly face. Research on family migration have documented that this dependency leaves marriage migrants – who are predominantly women – in a subordinated position vis-à-vis the sponsor and that this makes them vulnerable to various forms of abuse, e.g. domestic violence.

Furthermore, income requirements for sponsoring family migrants have been introduced in many European countries in order for the family migrant to economically depend on the sponsor and not on welfare. The dependent residence status and the barriers to labour market participation that family migrants experience is a strong incentive for gender-traditional division of labour among couples. These mechanisms are shown to have long-term negative effects on labour market participation and earnings. Family migration regulations create and promote different forms of dependency (legal, economic, social, and so on) that function as barriers to integration.

One may question whether pre-entry requirements for family migration have any positive effect on integration for those affected. On the one hand, requirements for family migration, such as income requirements, may be an incentive for the sponsors’ labour market participation. But if pre-entry income requirements push sponsors to prioritise short-term income from low-skilled jobs at the expense of human capital investments, such income requirements may in fact, contrary to their aims, contribute to reducing earnings and labour market participation in the long run. Moreover, it is the post-entry access to integration programs, language training, welfare benefits and services, education and the labour market that probably have the most significant effects on integration. Access to the labour market and to mechanisms to improve qualifications is essential. Among highly qualified family migrants there is also evidence of widespread under-employment. Making use of this unused labour supply would certainly benefit the individual migrant in terms of economic and social integration, as well as being a contribution to the national economy.

Campaigning organisations and the media have drawn attention to the negative consequences that family separation has for couples and children, but so far, there is limited scholarly insight into the consequences that family separation has for families’ well-being and integration. Moreover, existing research clearly shows that family separation has harmful effects, such as severe negative effects on refugees’ mental health, heavy financial and practical burdens on spouses, distress, anxiety and negative behaviour for children, amongst others. Strict requirements for family migration inevitably cause family separation that has a serious negative impact on families’ and children’s mental health, well-being and integration.

But these harmful effects for individuals may be a price politicians across Europe are willing to pay. Strict policies do decrease the number of arrivals, and if this is the main purpose, policies work. A decrease in the number permits for family migrations may also cause a relative decrease in this admission category as compared to other admission categories and consequently changes the composition of the migration inflows. And family migrants do have lower average rates of labour market participation and educational achievements compared to labour migrants, although these are often higher than refugees. Even though results vary greatly between different sub-groups of family migrants, a change in the composition of migrant inflows towards a relatively higher share of labour migrants in relation to family migrants is expected to contribute to higher average labour market participation among the migrant population as a whole.

Photo: Mother and Two Sons, by Rhea Fabricante, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


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