ICT is one of the main channels through which migrants are able to provide and receive emotional and practical support to and from their distant relatives: Dr Laura Merla

We are living in a world that is rapidly on the move, thus the fluctuation created by the human movement is challenging the conventional institutions and their functions in many ways. It is also equally challenging for the academician to grasp such a grand and complex dynamics of change at the global spheres impacting upon the humanity at the very micro level individual self, family and communities. The process of rapid mobility also provides new challenges as well as opportunities for many institutions to adapt and survive. Research done by Dr. Laura Merla on family care provides significant insights on how the institutions such as family have been evolving in the transnational context. In an interview with Dr. Sadananda Sahoo, Editor of Roots and Routes, Dr. Merla shares some of her insights on the subject of transnational family care.

Almost every known society/country today is affected by international movement of people. In some countries more than 50 % live outside their homeland. Families are scattered and often breaking away from the conventional functions. Do you think that the family as an institution is copying with this phenomenon or heading for an unavoidable crisis?

The sociology of family has shown that there is no such thing as ‘the’ family, and this is particularly visible in our contemporary societies where a wide range of different family forms co-exist. What I argue in the book I recently co-edited with Prof. Loretta Baldassar from the University of Western Australiais that transnational families should be considered as a family form in its own right: transnational families are not anecdotical, but are an increasingly common phenomenon in an age where the social reproduction of households increasingly involves the movement of people. And transnational families are not automatically dysfunctional or, at least, not more or less dysfunctional than geographically proximate families. With the advent of communication technologies which are increasingly accessible, even if there remains disparities between the North and the South as well as between rural and urban areas; and with the rise of affordable travel,  families that experience distance and separation can better than ever in history maintain sometimes very close connections over distance and time. Of course not all families, nor all members of a single family, are equal in their capacity to ‘do’ family transnationally, depending on their socio-economic situation, gender, age, etc. The inequalities and power relations that exist within geographically proximate families also exist within and across transnational families.

How does the transnational movement influence the values in the family?

The experience of migration, of living ‘here and there’ can have a wide range of effects on the family values of migrants and their kin, both in home and host societies. There are cases where migration can lead to women’s increased autonomy, particularly when their capacity to send remittances give them increased decision power in the household. But there are also cases where migration can lead to increased control from men and wider communities over women, for instance when the group is trying to control the sexual behavior of women living apart from their husbands. Doing family from a distance can also have the positive effect of increasing men’s participation in kin work, especially in situations where the use of communication technologies is crucial. In my fieldwork I found many examples of men (fathers, sons, cousins…) spending considerable time online, exchanging videos and news with their distant relatives. Another example of the influence of migration on family values concerns the norms and expectations around elder care. There can be important intergenerational tensions between migrants and their ageing parents. Migrants originating from societies where families are the main providers of elder care in the absence of state support, and who move to a society where the state plays a more important role and where children are not expected to be the main and sole providers of elder care, are confronted to ‘new’ values that can lead them to feel uncomfortable with the expectations of their ageing parents.

In one of your article “Situating transnational families' care-giving arrangements: the role of institutional contexts” you mentioned that state policies and international regulations influence the maintenance of transnational family solidarity. I find there is also a clash of interests between politics and economy, between cultures, resources, and nations etc that affect the care giving.

This is a very vast question. I will answer with two examples. The global care chains literature has revealed a key contradiction in Western societies where the externalisation of care work partly rests on the import of migrant female carers. But because of their irregular status and/or unstable working conditions, these women are themselves denied access to work-family balance measures. The employment of these women rests on the assumption – or fiction – that they have no family responsibilities beyond the sending of remittances. The economic system needs flexible workers who can devote themselves to their paid activity without the ‘burden’ of family responsibilities, but this is in total contradiction with the real situation of migrants. There is absolutely no recognition that they continue to play a key role in the education of their children, that they continue to care from a distance for their aging parents, and that they might need time and money to stay in contact with their relatives and visit them if an emergency arises. At the same time, family reunification is becoming increasinglly difficult. This means that migrants are denied the right to reunite with their families in host societies, and so are often forced to live their family relations across distance. But policy makers do not offer them the policies and infrastuctures that would facilitate their transnational family responsibilities. This is particularly problematic for migrants who come from societies where state support is extremely weak.

It is even more difficult for migrants to reunite with their aging parents in host societies. The main argument that is used by policy makers is that elders are a potential ‘burden’ for Western social security systems, but again, this view does not take into consideration the fact that elders are both receivers and providers of support, and that their presence in the host country could in many cases facilitate the combination of paid work and family responsibilities of migrant adult workers. 2012 was the European Year of Active Aging, which aimed at highlighting the contribution that elders make to their communities and wider societies. But during the same period, several European countries restricted the access of elderly parents to family reunification schemes, based on the argument that elderly migrants are a burden to society. This is very paradoxical.

There is difference between refugee and permanent settlers in the transnational context. Refugees are have more vulnerable as compared to the diasporas who are more stable and in some cases enjoy benefits like native citizens. Do you find any difference in transnational family care among these two groups?

Yes, I do find differences between these two groups. Refugees are indeed more vulnerable, especially if they enter the territory of host societies as irregular migrants and have no choice but to work in the informal sectors of the economy. The demands that refugees living in transit camps place on their migrant relatives who live in the ‘North’ can also be particularly high and stressful. There are cases where these migrants from the ‘North’ decide to cease contact with their families precisely because they cannot cope with these tensions, and eventually re-connect with them when their own situation improves.

How do you think the role of Information and Communication Technology in the context of transnational family care?

As I said earlier, ICT play a key role in the maintenance of family solidarity in a transnational context. It is one of the main channels through which migrants are able to provide and receive emotional and practical support to and from their distant relatives. But people are not equal in their capacity to use communication technologies: these require time (you must find the time to communicate), education (you must be able to use these technologies), and money. The young generation plays a key role in assisting adults who are not familiar with these technologies, so there are very interesting cases where grandchildren, young cousins, etc. play a very active role in the circulation of information within transnational family networks. Mirca Madianou and Daniel Miller published a very interesting book entitled ‘Migration and new media’ where they show how transnational family relations are shaped by, and in turn shape, communication technologies, and I warmly recommend it to anyone interested in this topic.

The power relations between “host” and “home” vary in two way process and multi directional (transnational) context. Do you find any significant differences in providing care in the context of one single host county as compared by multiple host country/ culture ?

In my view, the specificity of caring in a transnational context is that families have to deal with at least two sometimes very different institutional contexts. Each context may facilitate transnational family solidarity in some ways but also hinder it in other ways. For instance, a migrant may be occupied in a poorly paid job that does not provide him with sufficient funds to travel or send remittances, but which also grants him access to paid leave which he can use when his relatives visit him. In my study of Salvadoran transnational families I found that it was very difficult for migrants living in Belgium to visit their relatives in El Salvador, mainly because of their irregular status. But it was much more common for their own parents to visit them in Belgium in order to provide and receive care because they could easily enter the Belgian territory, provided they stayed for less than 90 days. The very fact that various types of support circulate within transnational family networks can actually increase the agency of migrants and their kin, both in home and host societies, making them more able to navigate the system and get access to the resources they need to survive.

Thank you


Dr Laura Merla is a sociologist and political scientist. Her main research areas are the sociology of the family, migration, ageing, gender and work-family balance. She has published 13 peer-reviewed journal papers in English, French, Spanish and Japanese, 9 book chapters, and edited two volumes, as well as numerous conference proceedings.  Her most recent publication is a co-edited book entitled ‘Transnational families, migration and the circulation of care: understanding mobility and absence in family life’, published by Routledge (with Loretta Baldassar). She is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow (Chargée de recherches FNRS)at the Center of Development Studies,and the co-director of the Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Families and Sexualities (Cirfase),Catholic University of Louvain (UCL, Belgium).

Interview Date:   Wednesday, Dec 18, 2013
Person Name:   Dr. Laura Merla

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