Valentina Mazzucato

helps us to understand the phenomenon of transnational families

Valentina Mazzucato, Professor of Globalization and Development at Maastricht University, helps us to better understand the phenomenon of "transnational families" among African families that have experienced international migration. Valentina Mazzucato headed the work package on Migration and Families, part of the European Union’s "Migration between Africa and Europe (MAFE)" project, and coauthored a report entitled "Immigrant families: living together or across national borders?" (interview from June 2013).


What do researchers mean by the term "transnational families"?

International migration has seldom been studied from the point of view of the family. Migrant families are usually studied from the perspective of the destination country, and the focus is on family members living together in that country. In fact, the increasingly restrictive laws framing migration and family reunification in EU countries result in fragmented families where some members migrate and others remain in the country of origin. For some families this may be a choice. Families whose members live apart but still operate as a family unit are called "transnational families."

Are transnational families common among migrants?

It depends. Three-quarters of the migrants interviewed for the MAFE project had their own nuclear family, meaning they had a spouse and/or children. For two in five of them, their departure had the effect of creating a transnational family structure. Transnational families are particularly frequent among Senegalese migrants; the proportion is lower for Congolese and Ghanaian migrants. Also, it has been found that regardless of destination country, migrants belonging to transnational families generally stay less time in Europe than those belonging to united or reunified families. They are also more frequently undocumented.

Undocumented migrants are less likely to be reunited with their family in the country of origin. This is due to a combination of factors: families cannot be reunified if the migrant has no residence permit, and undocumented status is associated with lower probability of returning to one’s country of origin.

However, there are interesting differences by destination country. For example, Congolese and Ghanaian migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands are more likely to belong to transnational family structures than their counterparts in the United Kingdom. Individual characteristics explain some of these differences, as does receiving country policy. Differences by sex have also been observed: Senegalese men who have migrated to Europe are more likely to have a transnational family than Senegalese women.

Do African migrants try to reunite with their families in Europe?

Family reunification in Europe is far from being the standard outcome of migration. Of all migrants with families, only a quarter of Ghanaians and a third of Congolese migrants had reunified their families in Europe at the time of the survey. Senegalese family reunification in Europe is even less frequent.
The survey showed more frequent reunification between spouses than between parents and children, as well as reunification rates that varied by migrant’s sex. It should be noted that African migrant families are not always reunited in Europe; overall, a high number of families are reunified in the country of origin.

What is the impact of migration on the family remaining in the country of origin?

According to the MAFE survey, relatively few households contributed financially to the migration of family members. Only a fifth of Ghanaian households and a fourth of Congolese and Senegalese households did so. Children of heads of household are most likely to receive this form of support. A high proportion of households in Africa have access to international relational networks (through regular contacts with the extended family) and have received remittances from abroad. Those remittances go to a wide range of persons, not just the nuclear family. Spouses, children, brothers and sisters of the head-of-household most frequently send money, but in some cases more distant relatives also do.

The results also show that nearly 40% to 60% of urban African households are in contact with their international migrants. Many are in regular, frequent contact by cell phone. This attests to an active transnational family life, a characteristic of migration reality. Policies can be more effective if they take these realities into account.