‘A first generation in every generation’? Spousal immigration in the Casey Review and Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper

‘A first generation in every generation’? Spousal immigration in the Casey Review and Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper

Katharine Charsley

A striking aspect of the 2016 Casey Review is the prominent role of transnational marriage in its portrayal of problematic integration among British South Asian Muslims.  Casey stresses the significance of spousal immigration from the subcontinent as a source of permanent settlement of migrants to the UK, and draws both explicit and implied connections between high levels of ‘foreign-born partners’ and a wide range of integration issues. Newspaper coverage of the Casey Review picked up on this emphasis, with the Telegraph’s headline reading: ‘Muslims are failing to integrate because men keep marrying abroad, major report warns’.

The 2018 Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper builds on the Casey Review’s critique of transnational marriage, this time framed as problematic in terms of ‘rights and freedoms’. The discussion focusses in particular on British Pakistanis, and on consanguinity and transnational cultural influence. Cousin marriages ‘are detrimental where they restrict individuals’ right to choose’, while transnational connections ‘present challenges to integration where social or cultural norms overseas differ from British values’. As the Green Paper also proposes, both renewed restrictions to spousal immigration, and working with voluntary organisations ‘on issues around first-cousin marriages’, the inference is that British Pakistani transnational cousin marriages are among the ‘socio-cultural norms which can hold women and girls back’, and which the new strategy plans to challenge.

Family life is protected in international human rights agreements,[i] and can only be interfered with on certain grounds – not merely because a State wishes to limit immigration. The 2012 introduction of an £18,600 minimum income requirement was justified by suggesting that it would promote integration, but in its section on ‘Immigration for Family/Marriage Reasons’, the Casey Review cites the resulting reduction in migrants coming to the UK to join family as a sign of ‘policy success’. After widespread criticism of previous governmental approaches to spousal immigration,[ii] the stigmatizing representations of South Asian transnational marriage in these documents feel rather like groundhog day, but the open admission of reducing family reunification as the underlying policy goal is surprising. Given the sensitivity of these issues, attempts to develop wider policies around integration should clearly be disentangled from immigration control agendas.

Both documents use the memorable phrase ‘first generation in every generation’ to evoke adverse implications of transnational marriage for integration. Whilst this phrase, taken from David Goodhart’s controversial book The British Dream,[iii] is both catchy and intuitive, it is not neutral. It implies a negative view of immigration, and is a temporal trope suggesting the arrival of a family member drags social progress back from the values of modern Britain to an overseas traditionalism. It obscures the Britishness of most ethnic Pakistanis – around half of British Pakistanis have a partner from Pakistan, but that means that around half do not, and of course within most transnational marriages one partner/parent is British born and bred. Arrival into a British family with local knowledge and connections also provide potential advantages for spousal immigrants that distinguish them from the original ‘first generation’. And crucially, research evidence from our recent research project on Marriage Migration and Integration suggests that this model, like many of the assertions in these documents concerning transnational marriage, are overly simplistic, masking more complex patterns and processes.

Low levels of paid employment amongst Pakistani migrant wives are well known. Refraining from paid employment in order to focus on domestic and caring responsibilities is not unusual amongst women in Britain, but only tends to be read as an integration problem in certain ethnic (and class) contexts. The social and economic contribution made by caring for children and elders, and wider reproductive labour supporting households, should not be undervalued.  But alongside migrant women content to fulfil a domestic role, the MMI project documents others keen to use their education in the labour market (one in six migrant wives from Pakistan are graduates), or developing employment aspirations after seeing British Pakistani women working. Their opportunities may however be constrained by domestic responsibilities and expectations; discrimination; lack of access to student loans to enable qualifications to be gained or converted; and lack of knowledge of job markets and language skills. The latter can of course be acquired, but marriage migrants simultaneously enter both a new country and a phase of the lifecourse focussed on family and raising children, in which time and finances for undertaking training may be scarce. A parallel observation can be made of migrant husbands, who have high rates of employment, but often work long hours in low-paid jobs in order to provide for their new families.

The Green Paper’s recognition of time and lifestage constraints on language learning, and suggestion of more funding for English language courses are therefore to be warmly welcomed. Such training must however be free for all (low income should never be a barrier to learning English) and available across the country rather than subject to a postcode lottery of local authority priorities or ‘Integration Areas’.  Equally, the provision of practical information on services and opportunities before or on arrival seems a sensible measure, and would reduce migrant spouses’ reliance on in-laws. Both are also among the recommendations drawn from our research.

Relationships between transnational marriage and processes of integration are sometimes counter-intuitive. In Angela Dale’s 2008 research with British South Asian women married to men from the Indian subcontinent, several women suggested that migrant husbands prevent their British wives from working – just the kind of ‘socio-cultural norms which can hold women back’ to which the Green Paper may be referring. But the same women also observed that their own husbands were not like that, and our own analysis of the Labour Force Survey data confirms the finding that British South Asian women married to migrants do not actually have lower levels of employment than co-ethnics married to partners from the UK. Whilst community consultation such as that undertaken for the Casey Review is therefore valuable, the outcomes must be triangulated with other data. Indeed, in our research, we encountered some British Pakistani women whose marriages to migrants enhanced rather than reduced their autonomy – exempt from expectations to live with in-laws (who remained in Pakistan), they were able to pursue other aspirations.

The Integrated Communities Green Paper also comes very close to conflating transnational cousin marriage with forced marriage (echoing Danish policyunder which spousal visa applications involving cousins are automatically rejected, presumed forced[iv]). Whilst coerced marriages do occur and are a matter to be taken seriously, the majority of transnational marriages are not forced. Most involve at least some degree of parental arrangement, but some are initiated by the couple themselves, as young British Pakistanis on visits to Pakistan have the opportunity to form attractions at extended family gatherings. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth II’s marriage to a foreign-born second cousin whom she reportedly first met at an overseas family wedding could be a British Pakistani story (with some minor changes to names and circumstances). The Green Paper throws in a mention of genetic issues in its portrayal of cousin marriages as ‘detrimental’, and consanguinity does increase the likelihood of congenital abnormalities, but only to the level of risk for children of White British mothers over the age of 34.[v] As Alison Shaw has pointed out,

No politician has ever suggested that women over 34 should not be allowed to marry or should be strongly discouraged from reproducing because they are twice more likely than younger women to have children with birth anomalies. To make this argument would undoubtedly be seen as an attack on individual freedom.

Given the emphasis of both the Casey Review and Integrated Communities on both transnational marriage and ‘influences from overseas’, it is worth saying something about the relationship – or lack of relationship – between the two. In our interviews, British Pakistanis married to migrants were, unsurprisingly, more likely to visit Pakistan than those without in-laws to visit, but migrant spouses often travelled to visit family in Pakistan without their British partner. British Pakistanis married to migrants were no less likely than those with a UK-born spouse to stress their Britishness, and were not more likely to describe themselves as highly religious – indeed some British spouses were more religiously observant than their migrant partners. Migrant spouses did use their ‘mother tongue’ at home, and keep up with media from ‘back home’ – but that did not mean that other family members did not speak English, or that they wouldn’t watch ‘British’ telly with the kids. In other words, we did not find strong evidence of a causal relationship between British Pakistanis marrying transnationally and developing transnational identification or adopting ‘foreign’ cultural practices.

One surprising aspect of both the Casey Review and Integrated Communities reports is that both cited the Marriage Migration and Integration project’s report data about the proportions of British Pakistanis marrying overseas, but neither makes reference to the empirical findings of the report, preferring instead to gloss over these complexities.  The problem with this, as with all overly simplified portrayals of ethnic group family practices, is that it risks reinforcing negative stereotypes – and negative stereotypes are hardly conducive to integration. Rather, they are likely to worsen the social barriers and discrimination which impede both social interaction between groups, and opportunities for new migrants and minority group citizens alike.  Ten years ago, Dustin and Phillips wrote in response to previous controversies over government approaches to forced marriage that ‘It has to be possible to address abuses of women without in the process promoting stereotypes of culture.’ [vi]  Equally, in developing an Integration Strategy, it should be possible to provide services to assist the integration of spousal migrants, without in the processes perpetuating homogenising stereotypes of the family practices of entire ethnic groups.

Information and Acknowledgements

The Marriage Migration and Integration project (2012-15) was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [Grant Number ES/K006495/1]. A collaboration between the Universities of Bristol and Oxford, it used data from the UK Labour Force Survey in combination with interviews and focus groups with British Pakistani Muslims and British Indian Sikhs and their spouses. The full project report and shorter briefing paper can be downloaded here.

Thanks are due to the research participants, and the other members of the Marriage Migration and Integration research team: Sarah Spencer, Hiranthi Jayaweera, Marta Bolognani, Evelyn Ersanilli and Melanie Griffiths


[i] E.g. European Convention on Human Rights:

[ii] Wilson, A. 2007. The Forced Marriage Debate and the British State. Race and Class 49 (1): 29-38.

[iii] Goodhart, D. 2013. The British Dream: successes and failures of post-war immigration. Atlantic Books

[iv] Liversage, A. 2015. A cousin marriage equals a forced marriage: Transnational marriages between closely related spouses in Denmark. In Cousin marriages: between tradition, genetic risk and cultural change, Chapter: 6, Publisher: Berghahn, Oxford and New York, Editors: Alison Shaw, Aviad Raz, pp.130-153

[v] Sheridan, E. et al. 2013. Risk factors for congenital anomaly in a multiethnic birth cohort: an analysis of the Born in Bradford study The Lancet 382 (9901): 1350-59.

[vi] Dustin, M. & A. Phillips. 2008. Whose Agenda is It? Abuses of women and abuses of ‘culture’ in Britain. Ethnicities 8 (3).


Katherine Charsley is Reader in the School of Sociology, Politics and international Relations at the University of Bristol.