New regulations on family reunification

What have the new regulations meant for patterns in partner selection by ethnic minorities?



Author(s): Garbi Schmidt, Brian Krogh Graversen, Vibeke Jakobsen, Tina Gudrun Jensen og Anika Liversage

Publisher: SFI

Date of publication:



This report investigates the impact of the current marriage reunification regulations on young people with an ethnic minority background in Denmark. More specifically, we investigate the consequences of the 24-year-old requirement, the attachment requirement, and the regulation on assumption of forced marriage – all either introduced or made more stringent between 2002 and 2004.


We have chosen to focus on young people aged 15 to 30 years in 2002, who have a non-Western ethnic background. More specifically, we have focused on ethnic minorities originating from Turkey, the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran, Sri Lanka, Morocco and Afghanistan. We have chosen these countries because the vast majority of young people in Denmark with a non-Western background come from these countries. Furthermore, previous Danish research has found that arranged marriages are particularly common among people from Pakistan, Turkey and Lebanon living in Denmark, and young people from these groups often marry at an early age (Schmidt & Jakobsen, 2004). The survey was narrowed even further to focus only on young people who were living in Denmark when they were 14 years of age. The reason for this limitation is that the survey particularly explores the impact of family reunification regulations on ethnic minorities who have spent some or all of their childhood in Denmark.


The survey has employed both quantitative and qualitative methods. The quantitative component of the study used two types of data: register data and survey data. The register data used comes primarily from Statistics Denmark, but we have also used register data from Statistics Sweden. We have primarily used register data in our analysis of the impact of the regulation changes on partner selection, emigration (particularly to Sweden), education and work. The other quantitative type of data we used in the study was an update of a survey examining partner selection among ethnic minorities, carried out by SFI in 2003. Survey responses were collected among young people aged 17-27, originating from Turkey, Pakistan, FRY, Lebanon or Somalia, and the survey was updated using register data from Statistics Denmark showing whether the participants had since married, and if so, the category of spouse.


This study is also based on a large volume of qualitative data. This data can be grouped into two parts. The first part focuses on partner selection issues among young people from ethnic minorities in light of the family reunification regulations, including changes in choice of spouse, emigration to Sweden, and commuter marriages (marriages in which the two parties each live in their own country, and commute between these, for example using tourist visas). The second part of the data focuses particularly on problems surrounding forced marriages, the prevention of which was part of the reason behind introducing the regulations.


With respect to the first part of the data, in-depth interviews were carried out among young people with ethnic minority backgrounds (25 people in total), the parent generation (10 people) and key individuals who have particular work experience with partner selection among ethnic minorities, such as social workers, ethnic consultants, etc. (28 people). The new interview material has been combined with a total of 126 in-depth interviews carried out in connection with five studies by SFI between 2003 and 2008, all dealing with issues relating to partner selection among ethnic minorities.


With respect to the second part of the data, 79 telephone interviews were conducted with case workers, police officers, care workers, employees at Danish and Swedish women's shelters, government representatives in Denmark and Sweden, and Danish embassies in foreign countries.


One of the issues the study focused on was changes in the pattern of forced marriages following the introduction of the legislation. One of the places we expected to find knowledge about this issue was from women's shelters, and 24 of the 79 interviews were therefore conducted with representatives from such centres. An internet-based survey involving shelters in both Denmark and Sweden was also carried out to investigate the issue of forced marriages.


The impact of the regulations on when and who people marry

The marrying age has generally increased for ethnic minorities from non-Western countries during the last two decades. In other words, the marrying age was increasing even before 2002. However, the changes to the marriage reunification regulations have led to a dramatic increase in the marrying age after 2002 – and this applies to both men and women from ethnic minorities. Typically, women used to marry at a younger age than men, and the increase in the marrying age is therefore greatest among women. Changes in the marrying age may be illustrated using the following example: prior to the regulation changes, just over 30 per cent of 21-year-old women born in a particular year were married, whereas the proportion of married women of this age in a given year has fallen to around 10 per cent following the changes.


However, the regulation changes have not led to a significant number of adults with a non-Western ethnic minority background marrying an existing Danish resident with a different ethnic minority background, or an ethnic Dane. The proportion of 20-23-year-old young people from ethnic minorities who have married a person with a different ethnic minority background, or a person with Danish ethnicity is less than three per cent in both cases – before and after the regulation changes. The proportion of 24-27-year-olds who married an ethnic Dane or existing resident with a different ethnic background is nearly as small both before and after the regulation changes as for the 20-23-year-olds. Our qualitative interviews found varying attitudes to the issue of marrying people from other ethnic minority groups. Some respondents felt it was entirely acceptable, while others had reservations due to major language and cultural differences, despite the young people having grown up in Denmark. Furthermore, a lack of parental support for such marriages can lead to conflict, and some young people would prefer to avoid this.


A slight increase in the proportion of young people who married an existing Danish resident with the same ethnic minority background was observed following the regulation changes. However this type of marriage accounts for less than 10 per cent of all marriages among 20-27-year-olds both before and after the regulation changes, and therefore the increase is so slight that it could just as easily be the result of a trend over time rather than the rule changes. Factors contributing to this continuing low proportion might be the limited range of possible partners within the given group in Denmark (for example, whether a partner can be found with the same level of education), and different attitudes to the roles of men and women within the family and household.


As an exception to this general pattern, more young people with Turkish origins are choosing to marry a Danish resident with the same ethnic minority background following the rule changes. The reason that this is being observed among young people from Turkey may be due to two factors: 1) the supply of potential spouses with the same ethnic background is larger for Turks than for other ethnic minority groups; 2) it is particularly important for Turkish women to marry at an early age.


Interviews with the parent generation have shown that parents hold diverging attitudes to the choice of partner by young people. Some prefer to see their children marry a person from their country of origin, and may help their child find such a partner, but there are others who prefer to see their children marry a person who has grown up within Denmark. Our data show that arranged marriages continue to be organised internationally, but also among Danish residents.


Another consequence of the later marrying age may be an increased tendency to have a partner without marrying, particularly among women. For example, the proportion of 21-year-old women living with partner outside marriage rose from five to eight per cent prior to the reform, to 10-12 per cent after the reform.


The rise in the marrying age and the decline in the number of spouses brought into Denmark under family reunification are trends that could be observed prior to the rule changes in 2002. As such, the rules have hastened a development that was already taking place.


Overall, the primary impact of the regulation changes has been that young people who normally would have brought in a spouse from their country of origin under family reunification (if the 24-year-old requirement and attachment requirement had not been introduced), have simply not married. The decline in the number who have brought in a spouse under family reunification is particularly large for 20-23-year-olds, but fewer 24-27-year-olds have brought in a spouse under family reunification following the rule changes as well.


There are varying degrees of awareness and attitudes towards the regulations

The qualitative component of the study showed that young people are aware of the 24-year-old requirement. Awareness of the attachment requirement is less widespread. Several couples interviewed had married with the expectation that family reunification would be possible, for example when they were 24 years of age, but subsequently discovered that it would not be possible due to the attachment requirement. The same lack of clarity applies in relation to the regulation on the assumption of forced marriage. Several people interviewed had married a cousin with the expectation of family reunification at 24 years of age, but their application was rejected due to this rule.


Awareness of the applicable regulations also varies. Some families are well aware of the regulations, due in part to previous experience and general social resources such as education and networks, while other families are less aware of the rules and their consequences.


The ethnic minorities interviewed have been widely critical of the family reunification regulations being investigated here. However, some interviewees supported the 24-year-old requirement, as they felt that, in some cases, it might protect young women from being married at a too early age.


Increasing emigration to Sweden and other countries

The register-based component of the survey has shown an increasing tendency for young people in the non-Western ethnic minority groups to emigrate since 2002. The percentage of young people with an ethnic minority background who had emigrated at 25 years of age or less was eight to nine per cent prior to 2002, but had risen to 13 per cent in 2007. The same trend has not been seen among the Danish majority.


There has been a major increase in the number of young people emigrating to Sweden since 2002. The percentage of young people with an ethnic minority background who had emigrated to Sweden at 25 years of age prior to 2002 was 0.4 per cent for men and 0.9 per cent for women. In 2007, approximately five per cent of both sexes had emigrated to Sweden at 25 years of age. The number of Danes who have moved to Sweden during the same period has also increased, but not nearly as dramatically. While the percentage of young people from ethnic minorities who had moved to Sweden after 2002 has increased, there has surprisingly been a slight decline in the percentage who moved to their country of origin.


Emigration to countries other than Sweden and the country of origin has increased among 20-year-olds during the same period, but has been constant among 25-year-olds.


The proportion of young people who emigrate to Sweden varies among the ethnic minority groups. Young people with Pakistani origins, in particular, have emigrated in large numbers following the introduction of the regulations. Less than 10 per cent of 25-year-olds with Pakistani origins had immigrated prior to 2002, but this rose to 20 per cent in 2007. Young people with origins in Turkey, the FRY, Lebanon and Morocco are also increasingly emigrating to Sweden, whereas no increase has been seen among young people with origins in Iran. There appears to be no increase among young people with origins in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Sri Lanka, either.


One of the factors affecting the extent of emigration among the various ethnic minority groups is differences in geographic distribution. For example, it is more common for people who live in the Greater Copenhagen region to emigrate to Sweden, than people who live outside this region. Over 90 per cent of people with origins in Pakistan and Morocco live in the Greater Copenhagen region, whereas the figure is only 10 per cent for people with origins in Sri Lanka. The higher incidence of emigration to Sweden from the Greater Copenhagen region is also seen in the majority population.


More lenient regulations and cheaper housing makes Sweden attractive

The study uses data from interviews with nine young people with ethnic minority backgrounds who have moved to Sweden after marrying a person from their country of origin. Some of these young people, particularly the women, did not apply for family reunification with their husbands in Denmark because they or their partner were less than 24 years old. Several of the interviewees had married a relative, such as a cousin. Several also emphasised that their marriages were based on love. Sweden was chosen as the country of residence because the family reunification regulations are more lenient in Sweden, and the young people did not wish to live in their country of origin. They also reported that it was easier to find cheap housing in Sweden.


The move to Sweden meant that interviewees had to familiarise themselves with new regulations, such as family reunification regulations, and generally adapt to living in a new country. Many continue to work in Denmark, and spend a lot of time commuting over Øresund. As a consequence, the spouse brought in under family reunification is often alone for much of the day, and there is generally little contact with family outside the household. However, the interviews show that it has become easier to choose to live in Sweden because established networks now exist, and there are even companies providing assistance in finding housing and guidance on obtaining visas and residency permits. The young people have varying expectations as to whether they may choose to return to Denmark at a later stage. Several believe they will be unable to fulfil the family reunification requirements even when they have reached 24 years of age, and therefore see it as pointless to apply. Others believe the time spent in Sweden will mean their partners will develop primary affinity with Sweden, for example by attending a Swedish language school, making it less attractive to attempt to return to Denmark and ‘start again’.


The regulations have led to new forms of marriage

The Danish family reunification regulations are leading to emigration, but also to new ways of living – across borders. For example, several young couples of ethnic minority have their official address in Sweden, but in reality they spend most of their time in Denmark, without a residency permit. Some consultants and researchers label these types of marriages as ‘semi-legal marriages’ (Rytter, 2007c). There are also ‘commuter marriages’, where one party lives in Denmark while the other (most frequently) lives in the country of origin. The two parties live in separation for varying periods of time, and are primarily only together when the second party can obtain a tourist visa to Denmark. Choosing a commuter marriage as opposed to living in Sweden may depend on whether the person has Danish citizenship, as this is necessary in order to be able to move to Sweden. The choice also depends on where people live in Denmark, as it is primarily people from the Greater Copenhagen region who move over Øresund. The family’s total resources may also be significant. Often it is young people who are relatively well off who move to Sweden, as this alternative requires a certain amount of resources. Commuter marriages appear to be characterised by a degree of instability, particularly for children born into them. This study is unable to specify precisely the number of commuter marriages that exist, but the material suggests that this type of marriage has arisen since the introduction of the new family reunification regulations.


Another way that marriages among young people from ethnic minorities have been impacted by the family reunification regulations has been that some move to their country of origin for varying periods of time, to live with their spouse there. These stays – and marriages – may be voluntary or involuntary.


The regulations are not impacting levels of education and employment

Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds – especially girls – are becoming better educated all the time. It is therefore difficult to say whether an increase in the trend of becoming better educated among these groups since 2002 is due to family reunification regulations, or simply a result of the fact that these ethnic minorities are slowly becoming better integrated into Danish society. There have been no signs of a significant change in this trend following 2002 for young people from ethnic minorities attending general or vocational upper secondary education, youth education, or further education courses.


Just as the regulations do not appear to have influenced patterns of education among the ethnic minorities, nor do they appear to have influenced ethnic minorities’ level of employment. The employment trend among the groups investigated is virtually the same as among a group of comparable Danes.


Forced marriages are still difficult to quantify

As part of the changes to family reunification regulations, the Danish government formulated an action plan in 2003 containing initiatives to combat forced marriages. Some of these initiatives have been implemented within NGOs, ethnic consultant teams, and women's shelters.


Initiatives to counter forced marriages have led to some degree of registration of cases regarding forced marriages. However, it is difficult to provide an overview of the trend in forced marriages from prior to 2002 and up until today on the basis of the figures available. The data is limited, as there is no systematic registration of cases related to forced marriages. It is also not possible to define clearly which marriages should be categorised as forced marriages, and this makes it difficult to record accurate figures.


The consultants interviewed disagree as to whether the regulation changes have led to a decline in forced marriages. They are experiencing that forced marriages are becoming a more common reason for women from ethnic minorities to contact organisations such as women's shelters. However, this increase is interpreted as an indication that attitudes to forced marriages are changing among young people, and an indication of better awareness among young people and consultants about the possibility of obtaining assistance. Most contact comes from women who fear an impending forced marriage in their country of origin. As such, the women's shelters are most commonly contacted about forced marriages by women who have grown up in Denmark, and not by women brought in under family reunification.


In some cases, forced marriages may mean that young people from ethnic minorities who have grown up in Denmark are taken out of the country. Three of the seven embassies we spoke to report that they have experienced this phenomenon – although the number of enquiries received has been limited. Personnel from women's shelters in Sweden also report only few enquiries regarding forced marriages in connection with marriages where one party has been born or grown up in Denmark.


Unregistered marriages leave women disadvantaged

The survey also aimed at examining some of the marriage practices among young people with ethnic minority backgrounds in Denmark, including unregistered marriages. The survey only observed this form of marriage among immigrants with an Islamic background. The survey found that such marriages are most frequently entered into because people wish to follow religious norms, or wish to marry at a young age. For some people, unregistered religious marriages provide a culturally permissible way to have a boyfriend or girlfriend. Unregistered marriages cannot be used as a basis for family reunification, and are predominantly established among Danish residents. The survey was unable to conclude that this type of marriage has become more common since the family reunification regulations were made more stringent.


Unregistered marriages among immigrants with an Islamic background can lead to problems for women, as it is more difficult for them, than for men, to be granted a divorce.


In some cases, the man will not give his wife a divorce when she asks for it, and the Imams we have spoken with during this study also report this as a problem. One solution is to use a marriage contract, signed by both parties, that gives the woman the right to a divorce. Others use an inter-mosque cooperation initiative to draw up a declaration of divorce for the woman.


The regulations have made an impact on partner selection

The overall study shows that the family reunification regulations from 2002-2004 have had an impact on partner selection patterns among the ethnic minorities we have focused on. Young people are getting married later, and in the groups we have investigated, fewer people are marrying a person from their country of origin. However, given that many young people appear to have postponed marriage for the moment, we do not know if they may later marry a person from their country of origin, or if they will choose in the end to marry a person who has grown up in Denmark.


The family reunification regulations have also led to the rise of several new types of marriage, which cross international borders in various ways. Some young people have chosen to live in Sweden in order to be unified with their spouse, while others have entered into commuter marriages, where spouses commute between Denmark and their country of origin for varying periods of time. These various types of marriages highlight the fact that it continues to be important for some people to marry a person from their country of origin, but these people are now choosing other strategies to achieve this since the family reunification regulations were changed. The fact that family reunification regulations have influenced partner selection patterns among young people must be viewed against the background of ongoing changes in attitudes to such issues among young people and their parents.


The family reunification regulations have had no demonstrable impact on the education of young people, or their attachment to the labour market. It has not been possible, either, to confirm a change in the number of forced marriages.


More young people are contacting women's shelters to avoid forced marriages. This is probably due to the attention the new regulations have given to the fact that forced marriages are unacceptable in Danish Society, rather than being directly attributable to the rules themselves. This trend does not necessarily indicate a change in the number of forced marriages as such, but that women are becoming increasingly aware that they can seek assistance.