Family and international migration: Arranging the family life across borders

Bild von kholisrevenge auf Pixabay

The standard definition of ‘family’ as a social unit living under one roof might be challenged in the context of international migration. Families are scattered across different countries or even continents. However, despite their physical distance from each other, they can maintain their family life and the feeling of connectedness in a variety of ways.

Die Standarddefinition von ‚Familie’ als soziale Einheit, die unter einem Dach lebt, wird im Kontext von internationaler Migration in Frage gestellt. Familien sind oftmals über verschiedene Länder oder sogar Kontinente hinweg verstreut. Jedoch können sie trotz der räumlichen Distanz zueinander ihr Familienleben und das Gefühl der Verbundenheit auf vielfältige Weise aufrechterhalten.

DOI: 10.34879/gesisblog.2021.51

What does family mean?

Have you ever thought about what the word ‘family’ means and how this concept is lived across different cultural or social spaces and contexts? Through the years, social researchers have elaborated on different definitions of family, highlighting various dimensions that, taken together, constitute a family. For instance, back in 1949, Murdock defines a family as a “social group characterized by common residence, economic cooperation, and reproduction”1 and Neidhardt stresses that family refers to a group in which parents cohabit together with their children2. Nock (1987) states that one characteristic of family is that “at least two adult persons of opposite sex live together”3. Finally, Hill and Kopp (2006) consider a joint house-keeping as a prerequisite for being a family4. However, these definitions exclude a variety of different family forms, such as single parents, same-sex couples, or childless couples. Also, living-apart-together or non-residential partnerships—in which the partners reside in different households, at different places, or even in different countries—are not covered by these standard definitions. Furthermore, only family members belonging to the nuclear family (i.e., parents and their children) are considered, while the extended family (e. g. grandparents or siblings) is often neglected (see also the blog post published for the International Day of Families, which deals with different definitions of ‘family’ as well as cross-cultural differences in the understanding of this term).

Family life lived at a distance

In particular, in the context of international migration, the standard definitions of family are challenged. Families may be split across national borders, and members of the same family may reside even on different continents. Family constellations are scattered across national borders, and the resulting configurations depend on the migration practice or strategy followed by these families.  

Family migration processes thus may lead to temporary or more long-term spatial separations of families and the proposition of a common household as a prerequisite for being a family is no longer fulfilled. In these instances, family members do not live under one shared roof or raise and care for their children jointly. Nevertheless, despite being spatially separated, they can live and maintain their family life at a distance. If families are separated due to international migration processes, we often speak of transnational families. According to Bryceson and Vuorela (2002),

“‘Transnational families’ are defined […] as families that live some or most of the time separated from each other, yet hold together and create something that can be seen as a feeling of collective welfare and unity, namely ‚familyhood‘, even across national borders“.5

Bryceson, Deborah, Vuorela, Ulla (Eds.) (2002): The Transnational Family: New European Frontiers and Global Networks. Oxford: Berg.

Following this definition, two criteria have to be fulfilled to be considered a transnational family: 1) physical distance between family members, and, at the same time, 2) a feeling of belonging together and being connected, which is manifested through, for example, regular contact between family members via different channels or mutual support arrangements across borders.

Measuring transnational family hood of forced migrants in a quantitative survey

The two criteria defined by Bryceson and Vuorela (2002)—physical distance and feeling of belonging together and being connected—can serve as a starting point of developing and implementing specific questions into a survey questionnaire to measure the concept of transnational family hood in a reliable way. For example, the TransFAR project (“Forced Migration and Transnational Family Arrangements – Eritrean and Syrian Refugees in Germany”,, a Germany-wide representative quantitative survey carried out in 2020, follows these two criteria to capture whether and to what extent refugee families of Eritrean and Syrian origin have transnational arrangements. Concretely, in the TransFAR survey, the respondents were asked on the one hand about the whereabouts of their nuclear and extended family members and, on the other hand, if and how they are connected to them, especially if they reside in another country.  

Family arrangements vary for forced migrants from different countries of origin

The first criteria—physical distance of family members—was captured by asking the respondents where their nuclear and extended family members live to see whether they are spatially separated from her/him and whether transnational structures can be found.  

Figure 1 illustrates the results for the nuclear family, showing for Eritrean and Syrian respondents that, overall, most partners (left panel) as well as parents and their children (right panel) reside together in Germany. However, in particular, Eritrean men also show important transnational arrangements: of more than one half (53%) of the Eritrean men in a partnership, their wife or unmarried partner lives in another country. And for more than one third (37%) of the Eritrean men who have children, at least one child lives in another country than Germany. Most of these spatially separated partners and children do live in other countries than Eritrea, primarily neighboring countries of Eritrea.

Figure 1. Whereabouts of partner and children of the respondent, by country of origin and sex

Data: TransFAR (2020), weighted, N=1,458.

Contact and support arrangements across borders

To capture the second criteria—connectedness between geographically separated family members—several items were implemented into the TransFAR survey that measure if and how respondents are connected to their family members who reside in another country. For example, the survey asked for the frequency of contact with the non-coresiding partner, children, parents as well as parents-in-law. The answers could be given on a five-point Likert scale ranging from ‘every day’ to ‘no contact’.

Figure 2 shows the distribution of answers given by Eritrean and Syrian respondents and the frequency of contact with their mothers and fathers. Again, clear differences between the two origin groups emerge. While most Syrians have contact with their mother or father at least once per week or more, the contact frequency for most Eritreans is much lower at once per month or less.

Figure 2. Respondents’ contact frequency with their father and mother, by country of origin

Data: TransFAR (2020), weighted, N=1,458.

Furthermore, another set of items captured the mutual support behavior during the past year between the interviewed persons and family members who do not live in Germany. In particular, respondents were asked whether they gave support to or received support from their family members, distinguishing between different types of support, namely: sending/receiving things, sending/receiving money, support with organizational/informational things, or other types of support.

Figure 3 depicts the support behavior of the respondents for different types of help. Not only are there differences by country of origin, but also crucial differences by sex. Men, independent of their origin, are more likely to give any kind of support compared to their female counterparts. With one exception: The share of Syrian women who provide another type of support, which was not further specified in the survey, is larger than among Syrian men and Eritreans.

Figure 3. Support provided by the respondents to family members not living in Germany, by country of origin and sex.

 Data: TransFAR (2020), weighted, N=1,458.

A broad and multi-dimensional picture of current migrant populations can be gained when examining the variety of their family configurations and arrangements—being them transnational or not. Migration and integration researchers are interested in these differential behaviors as these are not only relevant for describing and examining differences across origins and sex but are also crucial for migrants’ social and economic integration processes in the destination country as well as their emotional well-being and satisfaction with their life. Especially for forced migrants, who cannot leave back their family members in dangerous regions of origin, having their family members close to them may enhance their quality of life. Shedding light on family configurations and arrangements of refugees is also of increasing importance against the background of increasing numbers of forcibly displaced persons worldwide, as estimated by the UNHCR, due to violent conflicts or climate-driven migration processes.

Are you interested in learning more about the TransFAR survey? You can have a look at some first descriptive results here:


  1. Murdock, George Peter (1949). Social Structure. New York: The MacMillan Company.
  2. Neidhardt, Friedhelm (1975). Die Familie in Deutschland. Gesellschaftliche Stellung, Struktur und Funktion. Wiesbaden:VS Springer.
  3. Nock, Steven L. (1987). Sociology of the Family. NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  4. Hill, Paul, Kopp, Johannes (2006): Familiensoziologie. Grundlagen und theoretische Perspektiven. Wiesbaden: VS Springer.
  5. Bryceson, Deborah, Vuorela, Ulla (Eds.) (2002): The Transnational Family: New European Frontiers and Global Networks. Oxford: Berg.

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