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How people migrate

Family ties

Reinforcing the colonial patterns are family reunification programmes. Receiving countries give priority to close relatives of existing residents.

The acceptance of family reunification arises at least in part from a greater respect for human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights establishes that everyone has the right to marry and that the family is the 'fundamental unit of society' entitled to protection from the state. But there are also sound social reasons for allowing migrants to be with their families, since workers with families tend to integrate better.

This has had a profound influence on modern patterns of migration. In recent years, family entry has accounted for two-thirds of all immigration into the United States, and for over one-quarter of all immigration into Australia and Canada. Illegal immigrants too want their families to join them.

Although all countries accept the principle of family reunification, some are more liberal than others. Thus France and Germany have been more restrictive, while Australia and the Netherlands are more liberal — extending rights of reunification to gay partners. The UK is somewhere in between.

You might expect that family reunion would freeze the immigration patterns completely. But some nationalities, particularly Asians are more family minded than others. This became evident after 1965 when the US passed a new Immigration and Nationality Act basing the qualification for immigration not on national origin, race or ancestry, but on types of worker and family ties. The government assumed that this would continue to tilt the balance of immigration in favour of Europe. In fact, it worked in favour of Asians who brought in four times as many relatives per primary immigrant as Europeans or Latin Americans.

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Immigrant family in Washington

Immigrant family at a rally in Washington. D.C.
Photo: Elvert Xavier Barnes, Protest Photography