Becoming ‘traditional’: reproductive and marital dilemmas for Spain's Gambians

Caroline H. Bledsoe, Northwestern University
Papa Sow, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

In the European Union, as in much of the industrialized world, family life is quietly becoming the major battleground of immigration struggles. It is doing so through the logics generated by family reunification, increasingly the key mode of legal entry into Europe for people from poor countries. Generated in part through international human rights law, family reunification advocates the universal right of individuals to a shared family life. Closely related to it is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which advocates for all children the right to the care and company of a family, preferably that of both parents. Exploring a case of what we call the “demography of family reunification,” that involving Gambians in Spain, we contend that immigrant efforts to meet family reunification requirements, and state efforts to enforce them, have begun to form the fault lines along which family splits may occur. As Spain, itself facing EU pressures to tighten its borders, exerts pressure on immigrants through its family reunification categories, social formations begin to assemble around the inner perimeters of allowable immigration categories, whether through anticipatory selection of family or through the use of language. As families try to select members for migration who will qualify for reunification entry, this appears to intensify a trend among Gambian immigrants in Spain toward early marriage, high fertility, the formation of households with multiple spouses, and high rates of separation among mothers and children. While such patterns could be interpreted as evidence of African “traditionalisms,” we believe that host country legal and economic pressures are as influential in shaping Gambian family practices in Spain as practices back home. After sketching the changing immigration terrain in Spain, we present some of our ethnographic work and our examination of the national Spanish data sources, at

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Presented in Session 24: Migrant Demographic Behaviour: Fertility