Marriage and movement have long been intertwined. In many societies, brides move to their husband’s household upon marriage (and less frequently vice versa), but in contemporary marriage migration the distances involved can be substantial and may span national borders. This transnational border-crossing is nothing new: British brides sought by 17th and 18th-century British men in colonial India, Japanese ‘picture brides’ chosen from photographs for Japanese immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century, and the ‘war brides’ leaving Europe to join their GI husbands after World War II all provide historical examples of international migration on the basis of marriage. However, with increasing international migration and travel and the ready availability of communication technologies, transnational unions and international marriage migration occur with increasing frequency.

Contemporary marriage-related migration is diverse. International migrants may bring a spouse from their country of origin to join them; established diasporas sometimes maintain connections to ancestral homelands through marriage; in parts of Asia women move from poorer to wealthier nations to fill rural bride-shortages; tourists, international students or business travellers meet future partners during overseas sojourns; international dating websites facilitate online relationship formation, whilst companies offer men from developed countries introduction services and ‘romance tours’ to meet prospective brides from eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America. Gendered imaginaries of place underlie some unions. One suggested tension has been between some men’s search for a more ‘traditional’ spouse overseas, and women’s hope that an international marriage will provide a more progressive partner. Assumptions of hypergamy – that women are often marrying ‘up’ the international hierarchy – may be complicated by the sometimes marginal status of men who seek a foreign wife. Migrant wives are often viewed as vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, their isolation amplifying patriarchal control, but where husbands migrate (often against a virilocal norm) they may encounter new gendered challenges in the inversion of conventional domestic relations of power.

Governmental perspectives on marriage-related migration also vary. In Europe, southern states have conventionally viewed family reunification in a positive light, as facilitating migrant integration (see European Council Directive 2003/86/EC) whilst northern European countries have more often seen family migration as an unwanted side-effect of earlier labour migration. As this latter view suggests, marriage can pose a fundamental challenge to governmental attempts to manage migration, given that spouses are generally selected by individuals (and/or families) rather than the state. In this context, the ‘right to family life’ has become hotly contested. Some types of transnational marriage, however, attract more political attention than others. Marriages between individuals from developed countries are seldom problematic. In contrast, the vulnerability of so-called ‘mail order brides’ has been a topic of concern in the US, while in Europe the ‘homeland’ marriages of some ethnic minorities have become a high-profile political issue, in the form of debates around forced marriage, problematic integration and immigration fraud. Some regulatory instruments have been developed which disproportionately affect such groups, whilst allowing others to continue to enjoy marital mobility. In the UK, the Primary Purpose Rule (1985-97) required would-be spousal migrants to demonstrate that the primary purpose of the marriage was not immigration. This was seen as targeting South Asian arranged transnational marriages, where evidence of a long standing romantic relationship would not be available to demonstrate alternative motivations. Current minimum income requirements for those applying to sponsor a spouse’s immigration have more impact on groups whose average incomes are lower, including ethnic minority groups in which transnational marriage has been common. Denmark’s ‘Combined Attachment’ requirement presents a particularly ingenious response to the impulse to sort immigrant spouses according to hierarchies of socio-economic and cultural desirability: couples must demonstrate a combined attachment to Denmark greater than to another country, something which has proved particularly difficult in the case of inter-ethnic ‘homeland’ marriages.

Emphasis on transnational marriages as motivated by opportunities for migration, evident in much policy and scholarship in this area, has often been at the expense of a more rounded understanding of these relationships. Such models are of limited use in explaining cross-border marriages between partners from developed countries occurring in globalised marriage fields. But even in the arranged marriages between British Pakistanis and cousins from Pakistan, which have been the subject of my own ethnographic research, the opportunity to migrate is only one contributing factor in marriages that often help reconnect families to much-missed kin in Pakistan. Transnational marriage must be understood in the context of broader transnational relationships. A focus only on the ‘migration’ in ‘marriage migration’ can blinker appreciation of the broader value and meanings of relationships to those involved. In order to maintain marital relationships in the face of increasingly restrictive immigration policies, some couples have found equally ingenious ways to be reunited with their spouse. The ‘Surinder Singh’ route involves taking advantage of the rights of European Economic Area (EEA) citizens exercising freedom of movement to be joined by non-EEA spouses, whilst in Denmark, significant numbers of Danish Pakistanis now live lives which are doubly transnational – becoming frequent commuters on the so called kærlighedens bro or ‘love bridge’ between Copenhagen and Malmo in Sweden, where their Pakistani partners have been granted permission to reside.

Thus, the growing interest in marriage-related migration reflects a belated recognition that, rather than being a marginal topic for migration studies, this is an area in which issues of crucial importance are brought to the fore, including the gendered nature of migration, the diversity of contemporary international mobility, the centrality of relationships for understanding migration motivations, experiences and patterns, and tensions between human rights and immigration control.

Download PDF