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Rebordering Britain & Britons after Brexit

S3 E7 Families at the borders

16 Nov 2023

Michaela Benson [MB]: Welcome to season three of Who do we think we are? The podcast debunking taken for granted understandings of migration and citizenship in Britain today. In this season, we'll be considering the role of migration in the making of Global Britain, as the UK redefines its borders and seeks to reposition itself on the world stage following Brexit. I'm Michaela Benson, a sociologist specialising in citizenship and migration and your host. For this season, I'll also be joined by co-host Nando Sigona, whose research expertise includes international migration and forced displacement. Join us as we challenge public and political narratives of migration to and from Britain today and encourage you to think differently about some of the most pressing issues of our times, charting a new understanding of Britain's migration story after Brexit.


Helena Wray [HW]: For me, family migration, particularly through marriage is central to the nation building project. And that I think, causes a lot of anxiety, you know, who are we letting in? Are they the right sort of person? Do we want them marrying our citizens, bringing up our children and what sort of families do we want to promote? So regulating family migration is about protecting the family and the nation as a kind of cultural, moral and ethnic entity.


Nando Sigona [NS] The puzzling aspect of this is that this mixedness, the mixedness of status is not produced by migration, it is the Brexit as an event that in a sense, produced this process of rebordering, and people found themselves from one day to another - maybe it took five years because of the length of the negotiation period - but from a day to another, they found themselves as divided by a line by a border and we know that these borders are becoming harder and more solid.


MB: You heard from our guests in this episode Helena Wray and my co host Nando. Sigona. Helena's reminder about the relationship between controls over family migration and the production of the nation state sets the stage for this episode. And for our further reflections on how Brexit intervened within this, as Nando just outlined. Helena is Professor of Migration Law at Exeter Law School, author of the book Article eight ECHR: Family reunification and the UK Supreme Court, and is currently co leading the research project 'UK-EU couples after Brexit', alongside Professor Katherine Charsley. This episode is all about the regulation of family migration past and present. It centres on an important reminder that such controls are biopolitical, they regulate who is part of the population and who is not, exercising control over bodies. We will also be making visible the various ways borders can intervene in the exercise of family life. Now, to do this, we've mixed up our usual format of it. We're gonna start by hearing more from Helena, and in particular, her reflections on the evolution of regulating families through immigration controls, and what this makes visible about the racialization of the nation and its political community. And she'll explain how Brexit has brought these controls into a greater number of lives. Nando and I will then reflect on this drawing out further how the control of family migration and indeed restrictions on who is and isn't entitled for family reunion has long been intimately connected to the reproduction of the nation state and its body politic. So too, when thinking about the European Union, and their production of European families. As such, we are going to stress that the study of family migration offers important insights into the question, Who do we think we are, as well as normative assumptions about who counts as family and the politics of belonging. We'll then turn to Elena, who will explain what we mean when we talk about mixed status families, and how families tried to transcend the impacts of borders on their lives. And finally, Nando and I will reflect on how Brexit produced mixedness in formally mobile families in the UK and EU and with what consequences for their actions to secure their post Brexit status and their plans for future mobility. But first, it's over to Helena to hear from her about the production of family migration, the history of this, how it's changed and its current regulation in the UK.


HW: The regulation of family migration is fascinating, because it reveals so much about how a nation sees itself what it wants to be. And it does this to a far greater extent than other types of immigration law such as for economic migration, because family migration is often permanent – most migrants stay. And it also affects the intimate lives of citizens that affected lives and reproductive life, their sex lives, and that therefore it regulates matters that in most European countries, anyway, are seen as private matters, where the state would only intervene if the family unit was failing in some way. And it is through families that the nation's reproduced, that new citizens are born and inducted into social and other norms. Family migration is different to other migration schemes. For example, in labour student migration, the government can keep a much tighter grip over the overall framework so that, for example, only skilled workers or well qualified students or whoever can be accepted, but in family migration, the applications are made on an entirely different basis, it is made on the basis that the individual has a strong tie to someone living in the state and not because they're going to be abuse more generally. It's what Nicholas Sarkozy, the former French president, called immigration soumis, that's immigration to which the state must submit must accept, rather than immigration choisi, that is to say, immigration that's been selected. And I think for that reason, we've seen the rise in so many European states have criteria that indirectly or directly test for things such as financial resources and human capital, for example, minimum income requirements, language tests, integration tests, and so on. For example, in the UK, the biggest problem for many people applying as partners and spouses is a minimum income requirement. It's not just the level of the minimum income requirement, because it's now roughly equivalent to the full time minimum wage, but the very prescriptive ways in which it must be obtained, how long you have to work for to show that you have it and what evidence you have to provide and so on. And there's very much an emphasis on the self-sufficiency of the couple. And that is clearly something that's considered very important that you know, you are a economic agent. But in France, the integration test is much more prominent. And it's considered very important incoming spousal migrant has sufficient knowledge of what is called Republican values. So these are not the only things that going on it is a complex picture. But I think you can tell a lot from seeing what are the particular sticking points for a country. Although we had systematic immigration controls in the UK from 1905, really, family migration was almost entirely invisible for many, many decades, and was not really a target for regulation until the 1960s. And until the Commonwealth immigrants act in 1962, there were no formal controls over the movement of British subjects into the UK. So what changed was that after the 1962 Act, entry became much harder from some Commonwealth countries, mainly the racialized Commonwealth countries. So really, unsurprisingly, there was a marked increase in the early 1960s in the number of these dependents or wives and children who are coming in to join the Commonwealth husbands and fathers. And it's also unsurprising, the vast majority of these have black or brown skins, because most white Commonwealth citizens could still enter with little difficulty. And therefore, bit by bit to the late 1960s control started to be introduced over Commonwealth family members. And then these will later formalised through the provision for the immigration rules in the Immigration Act 1971. So I found that the question of how British family migration law has changed in the past 50 years from the 1970s is a really interesting question. Because in some ways, it hasn't changed that much at all. It has been more or less liberal at different times. And we're currently in a very restrictive phase. But we still have the same legal structure under the Immigration Act 1971. So in some way, so are these continuities, but in other ways, a lot of things have changed. So the conditions for entry now are much more prescriptive than before. It's not just a question of satisfying a decision maker that in general terms, a family will be financially solvent or whatever, but they have shown that that they meet these criteria exactly in the way that's required. For example, spouses and partners must pass a language test for they come. And they also must pass a further language test and a knowledge test before they can settle. And then the period for settlement is now at least five years, whereas it used to be almost immediately. And the fees and the costs are now astronomical. There are thousands and thousands of pounds, that you have to pay. And the evidential expectations are very onerous. At the same time, there are some things that have improved, so unmarried and same sex partners can now be admitted. And something that was called the primary purpose rule has disappeared, it was removed in 1997. So the primary purpose was in place from the mid-1970s, up until 1997. And it required applicants, a spousal migrant to show that the primary purpose of the marriage was not immigration, that you had to show effectively that it was something else. And this was a very racist test, because you can imagine how difficult it would be, for example, for an applicant from the Indian subcontinent in an arranged marriage, where perhaps he barely knew the bride and had very little communication with her before the marriage, to show that there was another motive for his marriage other than immigration. And you can see that it'd be much easier for an American applicant who'd been in a long-term relationship where the couple have spent a lot of time together, and they'd have the sort of courtship that we recognise. And so I think that family migration has become a much wider issue for society as a whole, and it's affecting a much wider range of people. And it's also become a very cumbersome and unworkable system, you know, reflecting really the immigration politics that we're living under at the moment, and it is causing a great deal of hardship. We now know that around 4% of all couples residing together, living together in the UK, involve a British and an EU partner. So there is a substantial number of these couples. EU citizens living in the UK could use EU family reunification laws, which were much more accommodating than the UK's own laws. For example, a French or a Hungarian national living in the UK, who wanted to bring in a relative was often in a much stronger position than a British citizen. There was no income requirement, there were no fees, the range of relatives was much broader, you could bring in elderly relatives much more easily, you could bring in adult children, you could even bring in dependent siblings and so on, it was a very different sort of situation. All of this ended with Brexit, there are still some some residual rights mainly when the relationship predates the end of the transition period. But in broad terms, EU citizens no longer have these advantages. And one big effect of that is that if you are a British citizen, and you have an EU family member, you now have to use domestic immigration rules. You can now come to the UK for up to six months on a visit. But in that during that visit, you can't work, you cannot make the UK your home, you can't put down roots. And in fact, if you start doing so, or if you start trying to do visits back-to-back, you may find that you're refused that you're no longer allowed to come.  If you want to come for longer, and you know most of us do need to work or to study or to do something with our lives, you must fit into another category, you know, you have to come in as a worker, as a student or as a spouse. And each of these is a very expensive, complex route. And you have to make some pretty big long-term decisions about what you want to do for the next few years. So the same problems apply for other relatives as well. So if for example you are an EU citizen living in the UK, and you have a child, and you want your mother to come and live with you to help you raise your child, that freedom is no longer available, they can only come for relatively short periods as a visitor. And I think this is a huge shock for people and it's likely to cause a lot of problems. And this impact of the immigration rules on UK-EU family life is something that I'm investigating with my colleague, Katherine Charsley at Bristol, in our Brexit couples project looking at UK-EU couples who are having to now go through the domestic immigration system. And what we're hoping is that this will shed light not just on the difficulties faced by UK-EU couples, but on the unfairness of the current system for everybody. In terms of the challenges that British people and their non-British family members face when making the UK their shared home, I would comment on this more as an observer than as a researcher. But in the work I've done, I've come across two really interesting and contrasting observations. The first is that on an individual level, many people do find the UK to be a welcoming and accepting place. And you know, they enjoy coming to live in the UK, and they feel that they can make their home there. But the second is that the immigration system works against them in so many ways, that at an official level, they feel very unwelcome. And there is now quite a lot of documented evidence of the harm that the immigration system causes to people, to children and to adults as well. And going through the family migration system is an ordeal and that doesn't have to be that way. I guess, you know, it will never be completely worry free. But do we really have to put people through so much? Does the immigration system have to be so complex, so expensive, so stressful, such an ordeal for people? And I think that we need to address the way in which fears about immigration have started to play a really exaggerated role in the way we organise our society. So it's not only the difficult administrative and admission processes that I've mentioned, but the internal bordering processes that make life so hard. If you're a migrant, you're reminded of it at every turn when you want to work, when you want to rent property, when you want to open a bank account. And it's so easy to get it wrong. And you know, to make a misstep, to overlook a deadline, to be unable to pay a fee, and then suddenly find that you're on the wrong side of the system, that you're unable to access services, that you can't work, or that you cannot function in any acceptable way. And so, you know, we have made life very difficult at an official administrative level. And we have to recognise that immigration law is inherently discriminatory. It may not always be the intention, but it always builds up and reinforces structural inequalities. And that may be in terms of whether you come from a wealthy country, whether you have received a good education, whether you're disadvantaged in the labour market, whether you have caring responsibilities, you know, it's not realistic to expect that we are not going to have immigration controls in the foreseeable future. And at the same time, I think we should always balance that against the hardship it's going to create. So you know, we put in place a new financial restriction, you know, who's it going to affect? What does it mean for families? Who's going to be forced to live apart? And I think, you know, we need to look at creating a more balanced society, in which the welfare of families and the ability of families to live together is really put at the center of our family migration policies.


MB: What I really liked about Helena's explainer was the way in which you described family migration as central to nation building, and how she drew out why it's distinctive in that respect from other forms of migration. And the way I see it, I mean, she moves between the past and the present. But she I think, is explaining how historically, the problem for nation states was one where they were seeking to regulate control and choose who can migrate, where actually they felt that they had less control over family migration. But of course, all the regulations that have been brought in more recently, do introduce some controls in that respect, which I think are counter to quite a lot of the international conventions around the right to family life. And of course, I probably shouldn't be so surprised that states would try to do this, given that relationship between gender, family and migration that we see playing out in some of the early literature around citizenship, for example. So I'm thinking of things like the book by Nira Yuval-Davis, which is simply called Gender and Nation, where she illustrates how gender relations are key to nationalist projects. You know, an extension of this idea about how gender relations are key to nationalist projects is this concern that we see among politicians about the reproduction of the nation, and what migration and particularly what has historically been called intermarriage might trouble the reproduction of the nation, what it might do to the production of the body politic, I suppose. But Nando, how do we see this playing out?


NS: I think that we need to think about this process of managing migration, not just as managing in the present and with having in sight, the economic benefit of some migrants compared to others, which seems to dominate part of the conversation around migration. The family migration brings very strongly an intergenerational dimension into the conversation because it has to do also with the reproduction of the family and the reproduction of the nation, as you mentioned, is in a sense, a biopolitical project in itself. And we know that there is a history around, you know, the attempted resistance of states who wanted to benefit from migrant workers, but they didn't want the migrant workers to become human being and become families and become part of the nation. And just thinking, for example, at what perhaps the most traditional case, within the context of the European Union is the case of the guest worker scheme in Germany, you know, in the 70s, when migrant workers from Turkey were imported en masse to work in the in the car factories of Germany, but there were very severe restrictions on family reunion, but then the migrant workers start to create families, start to have children. And they create some other challenge to the logic that was underpinning their migration from the perspective of the states. What we see perhaps with the European Union, now was as part of the project of creating a European Union, there was very much a push towards the creation of a European family. And this connects I think very well for some of our discussions at the very beginning of this series, when we talked about the imagined community and the making of the imagined community and in a way family migration is central to this project of community reimagining.


MB: I think that's a really important reminder Nando of that, the kind of historic restrictions that were put into place to stop people from settling because the underpinning assumption was that people who came for the purposes of providing, I suppose a reserved labour for to European states, were not permitted to settle and therefore, you know, they were not expected to create these families. And we see the resonance today, in some of the worker schemes that we have in the UK, for example, the Seasonal Worker schemes do not permit that right to settlement, they do not permit the bringing of family members. And certainly, something like the Youth Mobility scheme also explicitly restricts that possibility of people forming families while they are in the UK. But I suppose going back to this idea of the European family, is a really kind of catchy phrase, isn't it the European family, but it's not one that isn't without problem, because, of course, it still carries some of those racialized connotation, it still has that inherent sense of who is European which we know is also quite well, it is racialized as white.


NS: I mean, the sense of when we talk about European families or when we look at pan-European family, very often there is this idea of, it is often presented in a very positive light when it has to do with old member states nationals mixing, but then they become much more problematized and constructed as more problematic when involving, for example, Central Eastern European, so there is a racial hierarchy that is embedded also in the positive underpinning behind this idea of the European nations. But one point I would like to come back and is this idea that while nations as in the case of the guest workers scheme, may wanted just migrant workers and not migrants and their families, there have been other projects that we can refer to for a more proactive engagement with family migration. And often, I think about, for example, the former Yugoslavia, but even the Soviet Union, so political projects that didn't really have a body politic, as kind of homogeneous and historically rooted, they proactively engage in promoting intermarriage between the different national components for example, marriage between Serbian and Croatian or Slovenian, and Macedonian in the case of Yugoslavia, but also, for example, moving people between different territories and states of the Soviet Union to promote sort of this the production of the 'Soviet men', in inverted commas. So, in this case, family migration becomes instrumental in the production of the nation, not just sort of, in the production of a new idea of a nation that doesn't really exist yet. This is where again, this intergenerational impact on migration become a really central and important to unpack. But Michaela, I think we know if we look back at the British Empire and the Commonwealth also we have examples we can consider.


MB: Yeah, definitely, I think that that's true. And I think that what you start to see there is this idea of which families count as kind of family migrants in whatever way you want to put it, or which families would be considered as grounds of intermarriage. And this was heavily racialized. So it's very clear, and we've got a sense of it's a little bit from what Helena was saying, around the kind of the emergence of these forms of marriage migration, that, you know, there were some cases within the British empire where this would have been completely invisible. So that was some mixed families, mixed nationality families, perhaps, or what we would today call mixed nationality, families, which just didn't let nobody was really troubled by them. And they would have been the majority white families, but you know, relationships between people from the UK and people from the majority white English-speaking settler colonies, whereas, you know, something like my family, my grandparents were, my grandmother was from Hong Kong, South Asian descent, and my grandfather, who was white British, certainly would have stood out in that context. So you start to see how those ideas around patriality, which we've talked about a lot in previous episodes of the podcast, and how those were written into nationality legislation also come to play a role in constructing who the British think they are, or who counts as British, and therefore, who is considered as not British, and has to be, and whose migration therefore has to be controlled. So I think that that's, that's a previous error. And it really shows I suppose, the clear reality that is at the heart of a lot of what happens with family migration, even today when we're looking at Britain. But I think that something else has happened since then. And I think that we do need to remember that project of European integration, and looking at what Brexit produces, in terms of next level, I think is the next step.


NS: I think one thing which we tried to do with our work is also to problematize mixedness itself as a concept. Very often people talk about inter intercultural or interracial or international marriages, or mixed marriages or mixed-race marriages. But in reality, those terms when they seemed only this descriptive, they contain so much more into them. And I think, in the next part, we want really to unpack this idea of mixedness to see to what extent Brexit provides a lens, a vantage point from which to observe the complexities, and the normative nature that is hidden behind the term.


MB: Absolutely. But before we head over to Elena to hear what we mean by mixed status families, so the first clip is from Kate, who took part in my research for their backpacks project. And that was a project which looks at what Brexit meant for British citizens living in the EU. And she's married to a Frenchman living in the South-West of France. She's got three children, they met in the UK, and moved to France. And she described to me waking up to the news alongside her husband, that Britain had voted to leave the European Union.


Voiceover – British citizen in the EU: I remember him saying they've just voted against everything that we are. I was like, pretty much but took it very personally. We're the original EU family. He was there in London because the EU made it possible for him to study electronic engineering in London. If it wasn't freedom of movement, we would never have met, we wouldn't exist. This is the thing because I couldn't work out why do I have such a powerful emotional reaction to this? Isn't this just politics?


MB: Before we hear from many more of those taking part from the research, let's hear from Elena about what we mean by mixed status families.


Elena Zambelli [EZ]: A mixed-status family is a family in which one or more of its members have a different legal status in their country of habitual residence. For example, partners may be citizens of different countries, or their children may be born with a nationality different from their own. It includes citizens living with noncitizens, who may, in turn, be either legal or irregular migrants in the country of their family’s habitual residence. Families are constituted by emotional and economic ties, forms of exchange and interdependence among its members. For mixed-status families, domestic migration law in the countries they live or want to live can make these relations a bit more complex. They can create challenges for how they sustain their relationships. Indeed, this might also make it difficult for some families to form in the first instance! Migration law is possibly the most important, crucial branch of law affecting the lives of mixed-status families. This is because it determines who may enter and reside within the country where it applies, and who may not. Just a reminder, migration law lays out who, in the eyes of the receiving state, is allowed to enter and settle in a country as a non-citizen, those eligible granted the status of ‘legal’ migrants; those who do not, instead, are considered ‘irregular’ and risk detention and removal. While love transcends borders, states see borders! Their very existence, as we have heard in the previous episode of Who do we think we are?, is contingent upon border enforcement, to the extent that, arguably, to imagine a world without borders is to imagine a world without the state (or at least, ‘the state as we know it’). But the right to family life is also a question of human rights. As such, mixed-status families arise at the crossroads where human rights claims touch upon questions of national sovereignty and specifically interfere with states’ power to decide whom to allow within their borders, on what terms, and whom to reject or expel. And, while several international legal instruments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, recognize people’s right to family life, this right is far from absolute. Rather, states may and do use a wide and discretionary range of motives to try and curtail it – including national security, public safety, public health, and even the protection of morals! But back to the families themselves - differences in legal status among family members carry a wide range of consequences for how members lead their everyday life and imagine their own futures, as well as that of their adult and minor dependents, including their children. For example, states may limit non-citizen family members’ access to welfare and employment, with negative effects on their families’ finances – present and future. More radically, however, where a family includes one or more members with an irregular status, everyday life may take place against the lingering fear of detention and deportation, with profound emotional and psychological consequences, alongside a range of material constraints to work, welfare, mobility among other things. What this shows is how the conditions of irregularity within families can influence all other aspects of their lives. So what happens when families are denied the right to reunion or formation because of differences in nationality? When everything else fails and it becomes reality, families are forced to either live separately or to seek and move together elsewhere, in a different country. Nonetheless, a family’s qualification as mixed-status is not a foregone conclusion – it can change over time. Whilst difference in status may characterize a family at the time of its formation – such as when a person undertakes ‘marriage migration’, meaning, when they migrate to another country to establish a family with one of its citizens (or another migrant) – people may find ways to move out of the category of mixed-status. Naturalization—becoming citizens of the country of residence—is one way that such families might resolve these issues This is something that we have seen happening quite a lot in the years following the Brexit referendum, as many people living in formerly mobile, European families, suddenly found themselves and their families living on either side of the Channel separated by the emerging UK-EU border – with consequences that Michaela and Nando will discuss more in-depth later But importantly, naturalisation ordinarily means that families have already been granted rights to reunion. This remains out of reach for many families crossed by borders.


MB: You're listening to who do we think we are presents global Britain, a podcast all about migration and citizenship in the UK after Brexit, hosted by me, Michaela Benson and my co-host Nando Sigona. If you like what you've heard, follow and rate us on your preferred podcast platform. This means that you'll be the first to hear when our episodes drop, and it also helps more people to discover the podcast. 

We heard that from Elena about this idea of mixed status families. And this has become quite significant in our research for the MIGZEN project, when we've been thinking about what Brexit has done to families who live across national borders. And speaking with those who've taken part in our research, so British citizens from the EU, EU citizens in the UK, what we've picked up is a really protracted sense of uncertainty about the impact of Brexit, for them and for their families. And we've witnessed this in several ways. It's had a range of impact in terms of their rights to move as families, but also in respect to their relationship with those who live on the other side of borders. So Nando, I'm gonna bring you in here to talk a little bit about the consequences of Brexit for these transnational families.


NS: Yeah, I guess, I mean, the puzzling, even conceptually, the puzzling aspect of this is that this mixedness, this mixedness of status is not produced by migration, it is Brexit as an event that in a sense, produced this process of rebordering, and people found themselves from one day to another, maybe it took five years because of the length of the negotiation period, but from a day to another, they found themselves as divided by a line by a border, and we know that these borders are becoming harder and more solid, because of the hostile environment, that applies to sort of the governance of migration, is making the rules more stringent, the position or the status of people more precarious. And so this sort of people, when we spoke to them, at the beginning of the, of the transition period, and then when we did the survey, at the beginning of the MIGZEN project, what thing was really remarkable was how people were unsettled, shocked by the consequence of Brexit on their own families, and how this sort of division were becoming part of their way to think about the future, about their relationship with their children, but also the relationship with the family abroad, with the grandparents etc. And in a lot of the decision making around their being in Britain was very much shaped by the new reality, which was emerging, not very clearly at the beginning. So there was a lot of uncertainty, a lot of unknown that people had to cope and try to understand and figure it out.


MB: Yeah, I think this is the same to, from my research that I've done with British citizens who live in the EU 26. But also, they were experiencing Brexit in that way. So very much, one of the primary sites through which people have felt Brexit is in those family relationships, and in what that's done to their ability to be together as families, or their ability in the case of British citizens, who live in the EU to be in the UK for periods of time with family members, or for their family members to spend time with them.


NS: One thing that I found quite funny is that, and this is something we explored in our recently published article in Sociology with Elena Zambelli, around the sticky families and the impact of Brexit, is that somehow in our project, while we were approaching two different populations, you did your work, for example, with British citizen who were living in Europe, I did work with EU nationals living in UK. And then when we start to work on on families, things get much more confused, because in a lot of your families, you have British national that are in a relationship with Europeans in their country of origin there, and I find myself well, myself, I'm one of the case studies of this as well, in a sense, and you are too, and I found that a lot of the EU nationals was working with was in a relationship and had children with a British national. And so in a sense, the idea of this mixedness is interesting, because there's these two groups merge into one. And and, and we could observe how Brexit was producing impact on them both in UK and abroad but to the same kind of units.


MB: Yeah, it was a really interesting way of bringing those two groups of people together in some ways, because it was a much more common sight than thinking about, for example, for changes to their rights, which had been fundamentally different with EU citizens, now not ceasing to be EU citizen, but ceasing to be permitted free movement for the UK and British citizens ceasing to be EU citizens. And in that way, no longer having those rights to free movement. So I think it was an interesting way into this. But I wanted to go back to some of your earlier work on the consequences of Brexit for some of these other EU families that you worked with in your previous study. And in a recent paper that you wrote with Marie Godin for the Sociological Review, you talk about things like divorce and separation induced by Brexit. What did you mean by that?


NS: We spoke to people, I mean, as part of our research, we interviewed over 150 families for the Eurochildren project. And, and some of them were people that had left the UK as a result of Brexit. Others were EU families that were living in UK. And one element which was common to these two cohorts was very much this idea of, the extent to which the Brexit had imposed on them conversations that not necessarily they wanted to have, you know, one thing I say that everyone a lot of migrants always talked about, I want to go back home, or but it's a kind of very generic, and distant dream, it is somewhat distant in time, when I retire. And then suddenly, Brexit brought tat conversation in the present with immediate potential consequences. And so what we noticed was that, among the large majority of the people we spoke to people were referring to about an intention to leave the UK, they were talking about 'oh, I don't want to stay here anymore', but then we went back to them after a year that we had spoken first, and the large majority people had stayed in the UK, partly because and the reason was because of family. They were talking about the, the, the roots and the anchoring element that the family had in British society, how difficult it was to resettle in a new place and building a new life etc. But then we went also to talk to people that they actually left. And we tried to understand the how that managed to move from intention to actual practice and the challenges they were facing. And for them, basically leave the UK it was perhaps the only way to remaining together as a family. And also, they had the resources to do so in terms of finding job, etc. There was also another strategy that people put in place. And this is something we discussed in another article that came out for the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, where we asked people that applied for naturalisation about why they did so. So people said that, you know, Brexit faced us with the choice to leave and stay. And if we decide to stay, we need to decide, in a sense to become British. And this was something that for some of them had been not on the agenda at all, even if they had been living in the country for 20 years. And becoming British is interesting in many ways. But the point I guess that is more relevant for us here is this idea that they had to accept that we're no longer peers in the UK as EU citizens, because Britain was no longer part of the of the EU. And so they in a sense, they renationalised the family, they they brought to avoid the process of bordering that we mentioned before, this division within the family, the solution was, well, let's go become British.


MB: I think it's really fascinating. And we saw similar things with British citizens in the EU and the countries where it was possible to apply for dual nationality. But the thing I was thinking while you were speaking was about how family became the motivation, also, for some people to repatriate to the UK. And we've done a small number of interviews with British people who've returned to the UK since Brexit. And that proximity to family has been really crucial to that. And it's quite notable, I think that it's both what Brexit has done, but also their life stage within that. I've been speaking to lots of people who've nearly become grandparents, who suddenly decided that actually, they did want to be back in the UK close to their grandchildren. And I think that that's quite that adds another interesting dimension to this, as well. It just kind of shows shows a little bit more that kind of the complexity of the decision making around that. But again, I'm not sure that it would have happened if Brexit hadn't happened.


NS: Yeah, I guess going back to the initial discussion about we had to know about the difference between a migrant worker and a EU citizen in Britain. In a sense, as a migrant worker, you got you know that you are here because you bring work, you bring your skills and this is your role in society. As a EU citizen, you are a full citizen, you know, in a sense, you bring not just your work and your skill, but you bring your emotion, you bring your life projects, you bring your family connection, is a much more rounded position in society, a sense of membership, I guess some of the things that may be happening for the people you spoke to and also in for the one I spoke to, was this sense of people getting old, getting close to retirement or in retirement age and basically saying, Well, I'm no longer useful in this society, and people will see me as as a weight, a burden. And so they just prefer to go 'back home', in inverted commas. You know, since Europe is no longer home for us, we have to go back to the nation.


MB: I think that there are other things going on here there as well. And I think, of course not everybody has the option of overcoming the border, either by naturalisation or by moving because there are things that keep them in the place they are. And so there's also a conversation isn't there around what Brexit has meant for people's concerns about families in other countries. And this was something that we picked up really, really clearly in our People's Panel, and that's the part of the research, where we talk to British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK, who've been settled in those places before Brexit, about kind of concerns that we'd identified through previous research. And we've kind of checking in with them around where they were positioned in respect to this now. And one of the main things that we wanted to talk to people about was, you know, the extent to which they were involved in transnational families. And as the people who responded to this, 195 people, which was quite a high percentage of the people taking part in the research, told us that they had family relationships across borders, and of those, 165 highlighted that those were their parents, which gives a sense of the age of the population. But it also I think, draws out some of the concerns people have, again, related to life course around care across borders. So what we're finding now through our conversations with some of those people who took part in our research, is how central concerns around care are in the context of transnational families. And of course, it's just surprising more generally, when we think about migration. But I wonder if those would have been the same register conversations if Brexit hadn't happened.


NS: I mean, when we started, we also wanted to understand the impact of COVID within this because obviously, we need to remember that the COVID pandemic, the lockdown occurred during a crucial period of the negotiation that led them to the the eventually to the exit from the European Union, and for people was, you know, the inability to travel across Europe, I mean, we, the last sort of 20-25 years have really been marked by easy transport, cheap transport, Ryanair flights, where you could jump in on a plane and get back to see your family without any problem, without much cost, etc. And suddenly, the world became separated, again, in various, in silos, which silos tend to be defined by national borders. And their sense of separation really was amplified in, in their experience, so people that were already undergoing the shock of Brexit, and the sense of felt separated and apart, and unable to help the elderly parents back home. And some people had to make big decision and moving because that was the only way that was available to them to spend months away from from the UK with consequence of their visa and status in the country. So it's really interesting to see how the events that were triggered by COVID intersected, interacted with the uncertainty of Brexit, that were further amplifying the uncertainty and fears that people were experiencing at the time.


MB: Yeah, I think this come across really clearly, you know, that why is this stuff that people come across really clearly, in the quotation from this Italian woman who was in her 40s living in the UK.


Voiceover – EU citizen in the UK: I feel I should be cut into two parts. One for my husband in the UK, and one for my dad in Italy. That should just be two of me, really.


MB: So I think that that's given a really clear flavour of the various ways in which right in which Brexit brought about the bordering of families, and the various ways in which it might play out and what we might need to be attentive to in the future, as well as thinking about, you know, how family migration is produced as a form of regulation and what that means for whose border crossings as families are interrogated and whose are not. Thank you for listening. Who do we think we are? presents Global Britain is a podcast produced and presented by me Michaela Benson, and Nando Sigona as part of the research project Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit that's funded by the Economic and Social Research Council via their Governance after Brexit initiative. And you can find out more about the project at That's A big thank you to our guest on this episode, Helena Wray, and to our voiceover artists, Ala Sirriyeh and Elena Zambelli. A special thanks to Emma Holton at Brilliant Audio for her production and post-production support, to Elena Zambelli for the additional research and to George Kalivis for the cover art and social media assets. If you head over to our newly updated website, who do we think we, you'll find transcripts and enhanced show notes that include active listening questions, our podcast pics, and where you can go to find out more about the topics we discussed. And just a last call. On the topic of families and migration, you can check out my previous discussion with Ala Sirriyeh, and in depth discussion with Nando about his work with EU families in the UK. Will drop links to these into the show notes. But there's also much much more and don't hesitate to get in touch with us via socials to let us know what you've learned from listening. Or even if you've just found it interesting. That's all for now, but we'll be back with another episode very soon.

What happens when borders cross families? How do families navigate these interruptions to their ability to live together? This episode considers what shifting perspective to families opens up to view in terms of thinking about the work of borders and their impact on people’s everyday lives. Helena Wray, Professor of Migration Law at the University of Exeter, explains the historical development of family migration laws and what these make visible about the racialization of the nation and its political community. Elena Zambelli explains what a ‘mixed-status family’ is, and the many ways in which states may affect its members’ everyday lives and future imaginings. And co-hosts Nando Sigona and Michaela Benson consider how the state’s regulation of family migrations is linked to the reproduction of the nation state, and draw on data collected within the MIGZEN project to show the effects of Brexit on British-European families.


In this episode we cover …

  1. Family migrations
  2. Mixed-status families
  3. Families and imagined communities


Active listening questions

  • How would you define a mixed-status family?
  • Why do states regulate family migrations and with what effect?
  • What branches of law affect the lives of mixed-status families?
  • Is a family’s mixed-status permanent? If not, what routes do families take to overcome status inequalities?


Find more about …


How the UK family immigration system routinely separates binational families in this article by Helena Wray, Katharine Charsley, Gizem Kolbaşı-Muyan and Lothar Smith


The challenges faced by British-European families after Brexit in this journal article, report, and blog co-authored by the MIGZEN team 


EU families’ intergenerational negotiations of citizenship after Brexit in this article by Marie Godin and Nando Sigona


The role of race in differently shaping mixed-status and/or mixed-race family members’ attachments to the UK and the EU in this article by Elena Zambelli


Our podcast picks …


Head back into the Who do we think we are? archive to hear about what family migration rules reveal about British citizenship, Brexit and EU families


IMISCOE’s migration podcast on refugees mobilizing for family reunification


How to cite this episode:

Benson, M., Sigona, N., Wray, H. and Zambelli, E. (2023) Who do we think we are? Presents ‘Global Britain’. S3 E7 Families at the borders [Podcast] 17 November 2023. Available at: (Accessed: add date here)


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