Establishing families across national borders: A prominent element of immigrant research at SFI


The Danish debate over family reunification regulations has been a starting point for SFIs research in the field of immigration and integration. Both prior to tightening the regulations and after SFI has been at the forefront of collecting and analyzing qualitative and quantitative data describing transnational marriages among ethnic minorities in Denmark.

Salma’s family is from Pakistan. She was born and raised in Denmark, but when you hear her talking about her family you soon discover that to her, this is a global project. Her parents and siblings live in Denmark. Her grandparents, and many of her aunts, uncles and cousins live in Pakistan. She also has close relatives in the UK, in Canada, and in Italy. Salma meets some of her relatives during her visits to Pakistan every two-three years. Although Selma’s family is scattered across the globe, and although she only occasionally physically meets some of her relations, she is actually in frequent contact with most of them. Salma uses sms, internet chat-rooms and webcam to chat with her relatives – in particular her female cousins. Salma’s husband is from Pakistan too. They married when they were both 23, and then moved to Sweden due to the age limitations of the Danish family reunification regulations. The couple now lives in Malmoe in Southern Sweden, and Salma commutes to work in Copenhagen every morning and returns in the evening – often after spending an hour or two with her parents.

Salma is a fictive person, but her story includes many recurring elements of the life-stories that researchers in the field of immigration and integration studies at SFI have collected over the last decade. A starting point for collecting and analysing these stories was, and remains, the strong focus in Denmark on marriage migration as a means to obtain Danish residency. Danish family and marriage reunification legislation has been significantly tightened within the last decade, including rules such as the 24 years rule (stipulating that a person, born in Denmark, can only get his or her partner to Denmark, if they are both older than 24), and the attachment rule (stipulating that the couple must show a deeper attachment to Denmark than to any other country).

SFI researchers have collected and analysed both qualitative and quantitative data describing transnational marriages among ethnic minorities in Denmark in the years prior to the tightening of the regulations, and we have done so on several occasions after. Our database of qualitative interviews contains more than 150 interviews with young people in such marriages, their parents, social workers, immigration authorities and many more. The first of these interviews were conducted in the late 1990s – the latest in 2010. On the basis of these interviews and statistical data from both Denmark and Sweden we completed an in-depth study of the effects of the 2002 changes in family reunification (including the 24 years rule and the attachment rule) on marriage and emigration patterns, personal values, educational level and labour-market attachment. An English summary of the report, published in late 2009, can be found here » .

The quality of the data that we have collected so far in this field allows for both deeper and multi-faceted studies. In late 2009 we received a grant from the Danish Social Science Research Council to carry out a collective research project investigating, among others things, gender-specific effects of the new regulations. Furthermore, ongoing research and publications from SFI researchers in the field include focus on aspects such as divorce, polygamy, education, personal values and understanding the role that marriages play in global family networks and processes.

Another important aspect is that SFI researchers have a long tradition of working internationally on the topic of family migration. We work closely with researchers in other Nordic countries such as Norway and Sweden, and in an EU context with researchers in the UK, Belgium and Germany. Recently, Annika Liversage, senior researcher at SFI, organised a workshop at the 15th Nordic Migration Research Conference, entitled “Transnational family practices and nation state regulation”. Another of SFI’s senior researchers, Garbi Schmidt, is currently finalising a special issue of “Journal of Nordic Migration Research”, focusing on migration and marriage. The issue will appear in mid-2011.

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