European Commission asks: When is an adult not an adult?

Written by Thomas Huddleston, MIPEX Research Coordinator, Co-author and Policy Analyst, Migration Policy Group

A couple can be legally married at age 18–but a non-EU couple cannot reunite together under several EU countries’ family reunion rules until age 21. Government and academic studies have evaluated the impacts. Age limits have not proven to be proportionate or effective for integration. There are also better ways to prevent forced marriages, according to former victims and women’s shelters.

On 15 November, the European Commission published a Green Paper asking policymakers and stakeholders whether it should renegotiate or better implement the EU Family Reunion Directive 2003/86/EC.

MPG prepared a series of policy briefings to help you respond to this consultation by its deadline — 1 March 2012. The briefings will be discussed in a one-hour online seminar (webinar) on ‘How to Respond to the EU Consultation on Family Reunion‘ on Wednesday 7 December 10:30-11:30 Brussels time. Click here to register.

The Commission asks: Is it legitimate to have a minimum age for the spouse which differs from the age of majority in a Member State? Are there other ways of preventing forced marriages within the context of family reunification and if yes, which?

In order to ensure better integration and to prevent forced marriages, Member States may require the sponsor and his/her spouse to be of a minimum age, and at maximum 21 years, before the spouse is able to join him/her (Directive 2003/86/EC, Chapter II, Art. 4, 5, emphasis added)

MIPEX finds most treat married couples over 18 like adults

Equal treatment remains the international standard, according to the 2010 Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX). 17 of the 24 EU Member States where the Directive applies do not impose an additional age limit for family reunion sponsors and spouses. MIPEX suggests that a minimum age for family reunion that is higher than the minimum age for marriage will be unfavourable for societal integration. The European Commission stated that several countries’ age limits are “too broad or excessive.”

The map below show the countries in 2010 with age limits of 18 (pink), 21 or over (black), or somewhere in between (blue):

Since 2010, the age limit was overturned by the UK Supreme Court and raised to 21 for all groups by the Dutch government and the Belgian parliament. The Dutch minority government is lobbying other Member States to raise the possible EU age limit to 24, as part of its agreement with Geert Wilders’ PVV party to halve legal immigration and adopt immigration restrictions, similar to Denmark’s. The Dutch government claims that a 24-year-age-limit will help more immigrants to complete their education and provide for themselves.

Not effective for integration

These age limits, adopted ‘in the name of integration,’ are not effective for helping immigrants learn the language, get a better education or job, or prevent forced marriages.

  • Denmark’s 24-year-age-limit had no demonstrable impact on the schooling or jobs of immigrants and ethnic minorities, as observed by the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) and Lauritzen and Larsen 2011. Their educational achievements were on the rise before these requirements, while their labour market participation has improved just like Danes without a migrant background.
  • The Netherlands’ 21-year-limit had little benefit for labour market integration, according to the study by Dutch government agency WODC.
  • Studies in Denmark and the UK found no quantitative proof that age limits prevented forced marriages. Anecdotal accounts can be used either or against the effectiveness of the requirement.
  • Anecdotal accounts can be used for and against age limits. Victims of a forced marriage who fail to meet the family reunion requirements may be forced by family to marry and live abroad in their or their parents’ country of origin, where victims find it harder to access protection services. Such cases have been reported in Denmark and the UK.

Disproportionate effects: limiting family reunion

Age limits disproportionately discourage or delay couples from applying. Policy evaluations in Denmark and The Netherlands partly attribute the swift and significant drops in family reunion applications to new requirements like age limits. Many more potential sponsors are simply not marrying anyone. Fewer young adults with an immigrant background are getting married than before in Denmark or The Netherlands, although the rising marriage age is a trend pre-dating these policy changes. In any case, who and when these young people will want to marry are unknown.

More effective measures against forced marriages

Victims and survivors of forced marriage, who were consulted in UK focus groups (Hester et al. 2008), did not think that age limits of 21 or 24 would prevent forced marriages. In their experience, an age limit would bring few benefits — greater maturity, education and independence. These few benefits  would be outweighed by the greater costs and risks:

  • Greater physical and psychological harm
  • Mental health problems like attempted suicide and self-harm
  • Barriers to potential support like child protection legislation and school-based counseling
  • Forced entry of spouses into the country with false documentation
  • Forced emigration of sponsors to countries of origin
  • Dual marriage system that indirectly discriminates against certain ethnic groups

To address the broader factors behind forced marriages, the UK focus groups of victims suggested that family reunion policies were less effective than direct victim support, preventative work, and educational resources. Interviews with Danish victims’ support groups suggest to focus directly on immigrant women in the country and everyone’s awareness of forced marriages and services. Measures may be most effective against forced marriage when the sponsor and spouse can access trained services and women’s shelters in the country of destination.