by Catherine Schuknecht
International Institute, February 21, 2014 — At a February 14 lecture sponsored by the UCLA Program on International Migration, Hélène Neveu addressed the implications of increasingly restrictive immigration policies on Euro-Sénégalese marriages.
A visiting professor at UCLA, Neveu is a researcher with Oxford Diaspora Programme and a research associate at the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. Her remarks were based on her recent research in France, which included the compilation of 50 case studies of couples and former couples.
With the expansion of global mobility, European immigration policies are increasingly seeking to restrict transnational marriages. Neveu fears that growing criminalization of marriage between European citizens and African migrants will have a profound impact on transnational relationships.
“There is an urgent need to look at marriage migration and family reunification policies from a different angle,” said Neveu, calling for an approach that takes the complexities of people’s lives into account.
Policy shift limits “marriage migration”
Because marriage is one of the main ways that migrants can achieve regular status in a foreign country, European states are implementing laws to limit transnational marriage migration. The United Kingdom, for example, instituted a minimum income requirement for a sponsoring spouse in 2012. Denmark has enforced some of the most restrictive laws on marriage migration since the early 2000s.
In France, marriage migration is increasingly based on evidence of a transnational couple’s “romantic attachment,” said Neveu, with state inquiries often required to determine whether a transnational marriage is genuine or a “migration project.”
European states invoke several reasons for these new restrictions. In addition to limiting immigrant numbers, they are intended to help integrate immigrants who have already achieved regular status. One of these restrictions is the requirement that family practices deemed incompatible with European values be eradicated as a condition of social “integration.” According to the speaker, two types of family arrangements are deemed particularly incompatible: the fostering of children with relatives and polygamy.
Certainly, noted Neveu, polygamy is present in Sénégal. According to the country’s 2002 census, 38 percent of married individuals lived in polygamous unions. The practice of fostering children with relatives also has a long history in West Africa.
Although both customs are grounded in West African kinship practices, Neveu argued that they are often “intensified by the restrictiveness of immigration policies.” These policies have made circular migration virtually impossible, forcing migrants to endure longer periods away from home as they attempt to gain regular status. These situations often compel migrants who have left spouses and children behind to establish new families with European citizens.
“[C]ross-border couples,” she observed, “increasingly find themselves pushed into a marriage so as to be able to live an ordinary life together, only to be suspected of immorality when they do get married."
Public perceptions of Africans and Muslims shaped by immigration fears
Neveu noted that that she was not offering an apology for polygamy. Rather, she argued that European political discourse on polygamy is increasingly used to marginalize African immigrants.
In France, the practice of leaving children behind with relatives is viewed as immoral and an indication of bad parenting. Polygamy is considered even less compatible with European values.
Political discourse in France, for example, claims polygamous men should be excluded from the nation because they do not adhere to “universal values of human rights.” Muslim men are also suspected of using transnational polygamy strategically in order to gain legal status in Europe.
In France in particular, remarked the speaker, “[T]he notion that African Muslim men conceal polygamy has become so pervasive that there is now a systematic suspicion when African men apply for marriage with a French woman."
Neveu repeatedly insisted, however, that “[r]eal-life situations are often much more complex than the simple idea of concealment would suggest. . . . Transnational polygamous arrangements are indeed often the outcome of time, distance and the complexity of lives in between places, rather than a simple survival of timeless practices,” she said.
Current political discourse in Europe lumps all Africans together, continued Neveu, with African migrants suspected of being polygamous and, thus, immoral — regardless of their religious affiliation, citizenship or region of origin.
In essence, the new restrictions treat “immigrants from the global South . . . as a threat not only to state budgets, but also to social cohesion,” she said. Citing the work of colleague Bridgette Anderson, Neveu claimed that transnational spouses are even viewed as potential “failed citizens” — people who, like criminals (and single mothers!), are deemed incapable of making appropriate life choices.
Neveu’s recent working paper can be accessed here.