Marriage-related migration to the UK

Spouses are the largest single category of migrant settlement in the UK (39% in 2008, and 40% in 2009, Home Office 2009 and 2010), but the limited nature of research on family and marriagerelated migration has been widely recognised (Kofman 2001, Migration Advisory Committee 2009).

Whilst work in this area has been expanding in recent years, it is by no means comprehensive, and is characterised by a focus on certain issues and regions of origin, while others remain markedly under-researched. The majority of available research concerns South Asian populations whose migration has long been addressed through the lens of kinship.

Such ethno-national stereotyping of migration channels has led to the neglect of the important role of marriage in the migration trajectories of other groups.1 In this article, available evidence is reviewed to construct a much more comprehensive portrait of marriage-related migration to the UK than has previously been available, focusing on the largest nationality groups of migrant spouses.

The complex and varied picture which emerges challenges stereotypical views of marriage-related migration to the UK, casting light on the variety of processes involved, links with other forms of migration, and gendered dynamics. It also exposes the lacunae in this field, and the limits of analysis possible on the basis of existing research, providing new perspectives and cautionary lessons for policy making in this area.

The issue of marriage-related migration has been gaining increasing political importance across Europe in recent years, with considerable tightening of spousal immigration regulations in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands. In the UK, the issue has not received comparable political and public attention to date, but after recent public policy consultations (for example on the raising of the minimum age of spousal migration), the introduction of pre-entry English language requirements for spouses2 under the new coalition government, and a stated aim to cap immigration numbers, it seems likely that the UK will follow the example of its neighbours in seeking to tighten restrictions on spousal immigration. In this context, the uneven availability of evidence described in this article, and examples from recent British history and elsewhere in Europe, suggest a danger that legislation designed on the basis of partial information will have unforeseen consequences.