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Family Migration to the UK

24 Apr 2020

This briefing examines the migration of family members to the UK. This includes both ‘family unification’, where migrants come to live in the UK with family members who are either British citizens or settled residents; and ‘dependants’, who are the family members of migrants with permission to stay only temporarily.

  1. Key Points
    • Long-term family migration to the UK has been relatively stable from 2000 to 2018, averaging an estimated 65,000 a year.
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    • An estimated two-thirds of long-term family immigration to the UK is of non-EU citizens.
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    • In 2018, 96% of non-EU family unification migrants were partners or children.
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    • Family migrants are more likely to settle long-term in the UK than workers or students.
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    • Non-EU family unification migrants are usually on a five-year route to settlement, and typically pay fees of £7,000 from initial entry to settlement.
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    • The European Union and South Asia are the most common regions of nationality for family migrants.
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    • Among non-EU family migrants, dependants of temporary visa holders outnumber family unification migrants, but are less likely to settle permanently.
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  1. Understanding the Policy

    This briefing examines two types of family migration. The first, ‘family unification’, refers to migrants entering or remaining in the UK to live with family members who are British citizens or non-British settled residents. This includes spouses or civil partners; fiancé(e)s or proposed civil partners; unmarried partners (including same-sex partners); children; and, in a smaller number of cases, adult or elderly dependent relatives. The second type of family migration is of ‘dependants’, who come to the UK as the family members of migrants who do not have settlement or British citizenship and are in the UK on any other temporary visa, such as work, study, or family. ... Click to read more.

    Family migrants usually have no recourse to public funds, which means they cannot access housing support or benefits (except benefits based on National Insurance contributions), until they receive Indefinite Leave to Remain.

    Family migration rules are designed primarily to admit spouses or children. Adult or elderly dependent relatives may be able to come under restricted circumstances. They must, for example, demonstrate that they require long-term personal care to perform everyday tasks and that such care can be provided only in the UK by their sponsor, and without recourse to public funds.

    From November 2010, non-EU nationals applying to enter or extend their stay as a partner of a British citizen or settled resident were required to demonstrate a level of English language proficiency, with some exceptions. In this briefing, “EU” includes Switzerland and the three EEA countries, Liechtenstein, Iceland, and Norway, which are not subject to immigration control.

    Since July 2012, if a non-EU citizen applies as a partner of a British citizen or non-British citizen with settlement (ILR), the sponsor must have an annual income of at least £18,600, or £22,400 if the partner sponsored is bringing one child, plus £2,400 for each of any additional children. This is the ‘minimum income threshold’ (see the Migration Observatory report, The Minimum Income Requirement for Non-EEA Family Members in the UK). A partner may apply for permanent settlement after five years of residence in the UK.

    On 30 March 2019, the government launched a new family route, the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS) family permit. This allows for entry into the UK of a non-EU-citizen family member of an EU citizen who has been granted settled status or pre-settled status under the EUSS.

  1. Understanding the Evidence

    This briefing draws mainly upon two sources of data about family migration to the UK: long-term international migration (LTIM) estimates produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS); and Home Office administrative data on visas issued to non-EU citizens. This briefing also makes use of Home Office administrative data on non-EEA border admissions, which are compiled from samples of landing cards completed by passengers arriving at UK ports of entry. Each of these sources define family migration differently, and hence produce different estimates of it. ... Click to read more.

    The ONS estimates are based primarily upon data from the International Passenger Survey (IPS), a sample survey conducted at all of the UK’s major airports and sea routes, and the Channel Tunnel. As a sample survey, it comes with a margin of error. The IPS defines a migrant as a respondent who states that they intend to come to the UK for one year or more. Migrant respondents are then asked to provide their “main reason” for migrating. The question is an open one and the answers are coded by an interviewer into one of four categories, including to “accompany/join” a family member, which encompasses both family unification and dependant migration.

    Home Office administrative statistics on asylum applications and visas issued (to non-EU citizens) are the second main source of data. The Home Office classifies individuals by the type of visa they were granted, which includes visas to enter the UK, and any subsequent grants of extensions of stay in the UK, as well as grants of settlement (indefinite leave to remain).

    Unlike ONS estimates, the Home Office breaks down family migration into three main categories: “family” visas (i.e., visas for the purposes of family unification); “dependants joining or accompanying” (i.e., dependants); and “EEA family permits”, for non-EU migrants who enter or remain in the UK as family members of EU nationals. Home Office visa statistics include people entering or staying in the UK for any period of time, and not just a year or more. This is one reason that Home Office estimates of non-EU family migration are bigger than those based on IPS data (as seen in Figures 2 and 3). Other reasons for the difference include: some people issued visas do not arrive in the UK, which would prevent them from being included in IPS counts; the visa granted might be different from the main reason of stay stated in response to the IPS; and some people switch visas while in the UK, which might create a further inconsistency with their stated reason for migration in response to the IPS.

    Dependant visas are granted by the Home Office to a “main applicant” and their dependant(s), with the dependant(s) recorded under the immigration route of the main applicant (e.g., as a dependant of a worker or student). There are also visas which act as a catch-all for dependants who have been issued a visa on the basis of their relationship with another migrant, who is not a settled person or British citizen. These are included within the Home Office category “Dependants joining/accompanying” (referred to in this briefing as “Dependant”) and may have been issued a visa for any reason (e.g., work, study, family). There are also data on the dependants of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers and their dependants are not issued visas and are recorded separately by the Home Office. These figures do not include people who join someone who has already been granted refugee status or humanitarian protection.

Long-term family migration to the UK has been relatively stable from 2000 to 2018, averaging an estimated 65,000 a year

Family migration to the UK has been relatively stable since 2000, and is not much greater than it was in 1982 when records began. This contrasts with work, study and asylum migration, which have risen and fallen substantially.

However, from 2000 onwards, family immigration has made up a smaller share of all immigration than it did in the 1980s and early 1990s, due to a rise in total immigration (Figure 1). In 1989, family immigration made up an estimated 37% of all long-term immigration to the UK, its highest share on record. In recent years, it has made up around 15%.

Family migration began a moderate decline after 2006. This coincided with a fall in overall migration after 2008, and may have also been driven by the introduction of the English language requirement in 2010 and minimum income threshold in 2012 (see the Migration Observatory commentary, How many people have been prevented from bringing a partner to the UK due to the £18,600 minimum income requirement?).

Figure 1

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An estimated two-thirds of long-term family immigration to the UK is of non-EU citizens

EU and non-EU family immigration to the UK have different patterns. Since 1982, non-EU family migration has always made up the greater share of all family migration, and has made up around 70% in more recent years.

While EU family immigration rose gradually in the late 2000s, non-EU family migration fell (Figure 2). This downward trend is confirmed by the number of family visas issued to non-EU citizens after 2006 (Figure 6).

However, the post-2016 fall in non-EU family immigration that appears in the ONS estimates is not reflected in the more accurate administrative data on family-related visas issued to non-EU citizens, which records a rise from 2017 (Figure 6).

Figure 2

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In 2018, 96% of non-EU family unification migrants were partners or children

A large majority of people admitted to the UK for family unification are partners or children: 96% in 2018, according to data on admissions at the UK border (Home Office, 2019). The most common category of family unification migrant is wives, who in 2018 constituted 56% (8,900) of all such passenger arrivals, while husbands made up 19%, civil partners 7%, and children 11%.

Statistics are not regularly published on the number of adult or elderly dependent relatives (ADRs) admitted. However, the Home Office (2018b) has said that the number of ADR visas issued has been small since July 2012, when new rules came into effect restricting their entry: 2,782 ADR visa applications were made from 9 July 2012 to 31 December 2015, of which 606 were successful – contributing an average share of around 0.5% of all family unification visas per year.

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Family migrants are more likely to settle long-term in the UK than workers or students

Of all migrants issued a family unification visa in 2013, 44% (around 11,000) had permanent settlement or British citizenship by the end of 2018. This compares with 23% of those issued a dependant visa, 8% of those who came to the UK in 2013 on an initial work visa, and 0.1% of those issued a study visa (Figure 3).

One reason that dependants are less likely to settle than family unification migrants is that their stay in the UK depends on the length of stay of the “main applicant”. Among main applicants, rates of settlement are lower for those on work or study visas than for those on family unification visas (for further information on settlement see The Migration Observatory briefing, Migrant Settlement in the UK).

Figure 3

While family migration makes up a small share of total immigration to the UK (Figure 1), because family migrants are more likely to settle, they make up a larger share of the migrant population living in the country. In 2018, an estimated four million foreign-born people who were living in the UK – 44% of all foreign-born – said that the main reason they originally moved to the UK was to join or accompany a family member (Figure 4). This is equivalent to around 6% of the UK’s total population.

Figure 4

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Non-EU family unification migrants are usually on a five-year route to settlement, and typically pay fees of £7,000 from initial entry to settlement

Of the roughly 14,000 family unification migrants granted settlement in 2018, around three-quarters received their initial visa in 2012 to 2014, consistent with a typical route to settlement of five years (Figure 5).

Settling in the UK as a family member of a UK citizen or settled resident is expensive. For example, a partner on a five-year route to settlement will have to pay at least £7,000 (see The Migration Observatory briefing, Migrant Settlement in the UK).

Figure 5

At the end of 2016, around 176,000 family unification migrants had valid leave to remain but not settlement, over two-thirds (68%) of whom were women (see the detailed data here, which include only people who initially entered on family, work or study visas). These people will generally have no recourse to public funds (as noted in Understanding the Policy).

Most dependants with valid leave to remain but not settlement are adults, although an estimated 157,000 children (those under age 18) held this status at the end of 2016 (again, only including people whose initial entry visa was connected to a work, study or family visa).

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The European Union and South Asia are the most common regions of nationality for family migrants

In recent years, the EU and South Asia (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) have been the most common regions of nationality for family migrants (Figure 6). Although this in part reflects the higher levels of total immigration of citizens from these regions, a higher share of all long-term migrants from South Asia are family migrants: around one-fifth (19%) in 2018, compared with an estimated 10% for EU citizens.

Table 1

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Among non-EU family migrants, dependants of temporary visa holders outnumber family unification migrants, but are less likely to settle permanently

From 2005 to 2019, the dependants of migrants on temporary visas have always outnumbered family unification migrants (Figure 6). As noted earlier, however, dependants of migrants on temporary visas are less likely to settle permanently in the UK.

Figure 6

The post-2012 increase in the issuance of EEA family permits coincided with an increase in the population of EU migrants during this period (see the Migration Observatory briefing, EU Migration to and from the UK).

Among dependants of people on temporary visas, the largest category is dependants of migrants on work visas (Figure 7).

Figure 7

Evidence Gaps and Limitations

There is no single definition of family migration used across all datasets. As such, evidence from different datasets are not comparable.

ONS estimates of long-term international migration are based on the International Passenger Survey. This has several well-known limitations, which led ONS in August 2019 to downgrade its LTIM estimates from “National Statistics” status to “Experimental Statistics”, reflecting a lower level of reliability. This was mainly because of uncertainty about the link between migrants’ self-reported intention to reside in the UK for one year or more, and their actual migration behaviour (ONS, 2019).

Other limitations were highlighted in a 2013 review of the IPS by the UK Statistics Authority (2013), most notably that estimates based on the survey are “subject to relatively wide margins of uncertainty”, with these margins becoming proportionally larger when examining subsets of long-term migrants, which includes family migrants.

In a 2014 report on the quality of its long-term international migration estimates from 2001 to 2011, ONS (2014) announced revisions to its net migration estimates for that decade, based on evidence that they had substantially underestimated migration from the EU-8  countries. However, no revised estimates have been provided for the more detailed breakdown of immigration by citizenship and reason for migration, meaning that this briefing has relied upon figures which are now thought to be inaccurate.

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