Family is a major driver of migration. Family migration is the term used to categorize the migration of people who migrate due to new or established family ties, and it encompasses several sub-categories: reunification with a family member who migrated earlier (a person with subsidiary protection is also entitled to (re)unite with family members); family accompanying a principal migrant; marriage between an immigrant and a citizen; marriage between an immigrant and a foreigner living abroad; and international adoptions.
In general, data on family migration are sparse and family (re)unification programmes are the predominant means to collect such data. These programmes were developed to ensure the right to a family enshrined in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Data on family migration are based on visas and residence permits issued to family members, as well as population registers.
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Family migration as a general concept covers family reunification, family formation, accompanying family members of workers, and international adoption. The following are key terms and concepts:
Family reunification/reunion is “the right of non-nationals to enter into and reside in a country where their family members reside lawfully or of which they have the nationality in order to preserve the family unit” (IOM, 2019).
Family formation refers to the situation in which “a resident, national or foreigner, marries a foreigner and sponsors that individual for admission or for status change” (OECD, 2017).
Accompanying family “means family members [who] are admitted together with the principal migrant” (OECD, 2017).
International adoption is where a “resident, national or foreigner, adopts a child of foreign nationality resident abroad” (OECD, 2017).
Dependent is “in the migration context, any person who is granted entry into a State for the purpose of family reunification on the basis of being supported by a “sponsor” with whom the individual has a proven family relationship" (IOM, 2019).
Members of the family are “persons married to a migrant or a national, or having with them a relationship that, according to applicable law, produces effects equivalent to marriage, as well as their dependent children or other dependent persons who are recognized as members of the family by applicable legislation or applicable bilateral or multilateral agreements between the States concerned, including when they are not nationals of the State” (IOM, 2019).
The scope of family reunification depends on national law. For example, some countries may include same-sex partners (registered or married) or unmarried partners, whereas others may not (European Migration Network, 2017). Thus, the definition of whom family members can comprise varies across countries.
Transnational families “are families who live apart, but who create and retain a ‘sense of collective welfare and unity, in short “familyhood”, even across national borders’” (Bryceson and Vuorela, 2002 in ACP, 2012).
Data on family migration in developing countries are either sparse or scattered, due to a lack of capacity or political will to collect data (see Data strengths and limitations below). However, family migration data are available for countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) area. According to preliminary estimates, in 2020, permanent migration flows to OECD countries decreased by more than 30 per cent due to COVID-related restrictions. This is the lowest level of immigration to the OECD recorded since 2003 and family migration showed the biggest decline among all categories (OECD, 2021).
Partial and preliminary data show that, among OECD countries, family migration (including accompanying family members of migrants) comprised 37 per cent of the total permanent migration flows in 2020 (OECD, 2021). This is a drop from 2019 when nearly 42 per cent of all permanent migration was due to family reasons. In absolute terms, the number of migrants who moved to OECD countries for family reasons decreased by approximately 36 per cent from 1.9 million in 2019 to 1.2 million in 2020 (ibid.).
This overall decline is mainly due to the drop in family migration recorded in the United States (-50%), the country which has historically accounted for a large share of family migration flows to the OECD (43% of the total in 2019) (OECD, 2021). Other countries such as Canada also admitted far fewer family migrants in 2020 than in 2019 (-46%) (ibid). Despite the general trend of decline in family migration for most OECD member states in 2020, Denmark (+24%), Mexico (+21%) and New Zealand (+17%) registered significant increases in family migration (ibid.).
From 2014 until 2019, family migration increased in the majority of countries in the OECD area (OECD, 2017; 2020; 2021). However, in some OECD countries, family migration flows declined due to the shrinking of family reunification programmes (OECD, 2019). Nonetheless, no country has established outright restrictions on family migration, although there have been recent deliberations in the United States regarding the possible ending of family-based migration (MPI, 2017).
Despite the existing legal instruments and programmes that ensure the right to a family life, in 2012, the proportion of non-EU nationals in the European Union not living with their spouses or partners reached 5-7 per cent of those who live together, a much higher level of "living apart together" than for EU nationals (MIPEX, 2014). While family reunification policies have remained mostly the same in the majority of countries covered by MIPEX since 2014, seven countries have increased restrictions (MIPEX, 2020).
Both flow and stock data on family migration are predominantly based on national administrative records. Family migration flow data are derived from entry clearance visas (ECV), first residence permits or population registers for family reasons. Stock data on family migration are based on stock of permits or stock of long-term residents. Some countries combine administrative and specific survey data on family migration, e.g. the international passenger survey (IPS), to augment the quality of data. Data on family migration are also collected via such sample surveys as annual population surveys, labour force surveys or income and living conditions surveys. Data collected via individual surveys or ethnographic studies enable collection of granular data to better understand the transnational family arrangements across borders.
The following are databases that consolidate flow or stock data on family migration:
Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) consolidates inflow data on family, work and humanitarian migration. The OECD dataset on permanent immigrant inflows is derived from Eurostat (see below) and non-EU countries. The dataset is updated on a biannual basis.
OECD also produces statistics on permanent migration inflows in the OECD area, based on the aforementioned dataset, which are presented in the OECD’s International Migration Outlook. The report also presents estimates on family migration for OECD countries and is updated annually.
Eurostat, the Statistical Office of the European Union compiles data on asylum and managed migration primarily based on administrative sources provided by EU Member States’ national statistical offices, interior ministries or related immigration agencies, as well as by Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The database on asylum and managed migration presents the following datasets:
- First permits issued for family reunification with a beneficiary of protection status
- First permits issued for family reasons, by reason, length of validity and citizenship
- Change of immigration status permits, by reason and citizenship
- Admitted family members of EU Blue Card holders, by type of decision and citizenship
- EU Blue Card holders and family members, by member state of previous residence
- Permits valid at the end of the year for family reunification with a beneficiary of protection status
The aforementioned datasets are disaggregated by sex and age. Data are predominantly updated on an annual basis.
The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) measures migrant integration policies, including for those who come for family reasons. Similar to their previous rounds, MIPEX 2020 also measures how easily immigrants can reunite with their family members. Among OECD countries, data on family reunion – which were last updated in 2020 – are available for Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
In light of the current political climate, in which family-based migration in some countries is discussed in connection to irregular migration or in the context of it being a burden to the social system of a host country, granular data on family migration are of special importance to deconstruct these particular myths with data-driven deliberations.
The existing data sources on family migration are valuable baselines, but further enhancement in data collection and harmonization methodologies is essential. In pursuit of these improvements there are limitations that hinder the process, including the following:
There is no global comparable database on family migration, which covers all countries and areas of the world. This is due to a lack of data from most developing countries. Data are missing due to a lack of capacity to collect, process and disseminate data on family migration in these countries. Even when data are available, it is often challenging to integrate and harmonize datasets of diverse origins because of inconsistent methodological frameworks.
There is still little known about the recent dynamics of family migration and about the impact of migration policies in shaping it (OECD, 2017). This is despite the availability of family migration data in some regions of the world. Moreover, the evidence-base regarding the socio-economic demographic characteristics of family migration in some countries has not been updated. For example, in the United States, the most recent surveys on socio-demographic characteristics of family migrants date from the 2000s (ibid.).
Statistics derived from administrative records do not portray the complete picture of the flow of family migrants (GMG 2017). This is because, although administrative data sources enable the production of estimates on family migration, statistics derived from population registers and issuance of residence permits refer to administrative records rather than people (ibid.). For example, if the permit granted to the head of a family covers her or his dependents, the number of issued residence permits over a year will not be equivalent to the number of family migrants. Some countries are undertaking initiatives to tackle this issue. They tend to combine different data types, namely survey data and administrative records, to improve the quality of migration data.
Data on transnational familyhood are scarce. Despite the growing importance of this type of family arrangement in recent years, there is still limited knowledge on the scale and dynamics of this type of family arrangement in a migration context. Evidence-based policy is needed to ensure the migration of a family member does not need to lead to those left behind suffering.
Data on family emigration are currently incomplete because of the most countries’ limited capacity or lack of political will to collect data on family emigration. Thus, policy makers lack a sufficient evidence base to facilitate family emigration processes.
|Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)|
|2017||Making Integration Work: Family Migrants, OECD, Paris.|
|2019||International Migration Outlook, OECD, Paris.|
|International Organization for Migration (IOM)|
|2019||World Migration Report 2020, IOM, Geneva.|
|Castro Martin, T., J. Koops, and D. Vono de Vilhena (eds.)|
|2019||Migrant Families in Europe: Evidence from the Generations & Gender Programme. Discussion Paper No. 11, Berlin: Population Europe.|
|2017||Overview of Family-Based Immigration and the Effects of Limiting Chain Migration, Niskanen Center, Washington, D.C.|
|Fan, C. and M. Sun and S. Zheng|
|2011||Migration and split households: A comparison of sole, couple, and family migrants in Beijing, China, Environment and Planning A, 43: 2164-2185.|
|European Migration Network (EMN)|
|2017||Family Reunification of Third-Country Nationals in the EU plus Norway: National Practices, EMN, Dublin.|
|Confederation of Family Organizations in the European Community (COFACE)|
|2012||Transnational Families and the Impact of Economic Migration on Families, COFACE, Brussels.|
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