Migration from South Asia to the United Kingdom and the Maintenance of Transnational Intergenerational Relationships

By Burholt, Vanessa; Wenger, G. Clare | Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Migration from South Asia to the United Kingdom and the Maintenance of Transnational Intergenerational Relationships


Burholt, Vanessa, Wenger, G. Clare, Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics


The United Kingdom (UK) is a multicultural society, and over the next decade, the immigrant population that has come to the UK from South Asia (including Bangladesh and India) will age rapidly. Older people in ethnic minority groups in the UK have received relatively low levels of research attention (cf., projects recently funded under the Economic and Social Research Council [UK] Growing Older Programme: Afshar, Franks, Maynard, & Wray, 2001, 2002; Grewal & Nazroo, 2001; Maynard, 2002; Moriarty, Sin, Brockmann, Butt, & Fisher, 2001; Scharf, 2002). This is partly because their numbers have been small.

At the time of the 1991 Census, 4% of the Indian population and 1% of the Bangladeshi population living in the UK were aged 65 and over, compared with 17% of people born in the United Kingdom (Owen, 1993). Over the last 10 years, the proportion of elders in the population has changed for South Asians, but not for those born in the United Kingdom. According to the 2001 Census data, 6.6% of the Indian population and 3.2% of the Bangladeshi population were aged 65 and over. In the 1990s, it was predicted that the proportion of Asian elders in the population would increase three to seven times as older immigrants moved into the retirement age group (Patel, 1993), suggesting that there will be further growth.

From the 1950s onward, it was thought that immigration would solve problems in both sending and receiving countries. In the sending country, it was believed that immigration would relieve overpopulation, provide economic benefits through remittances, and increase the skills of the work force. In the receiving country, immigrants were needed to overcome labor shortages and to fill jobs that native-born residents did not want (Dusenbery, 1986; Piore, 1979). Consequently, much of the early literature on migrants living in the UK focused on contact between cultures in the form of remittances (Adams, 1989, 1992; Ballard, 1983; Gardner, 1993). However, more recently the literature on immigration has shifted the focus from the significance of remittances for the economy in both the sending communities and countries, and has moved toward an emphasis on "transnationalism."

Transnationalism is defined as "the process by which immigrants forge and sustain multistranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement" (Basch, Click Schiller, & Szanton Blanc, 1994) through the creation of cross-border and intercontinental networks (Click Schiller, 1997; Portes, 1997; Vertovec, 1999). It has been suggested that the concept should only encompass sustained occupation and activities over national borders, thereby excluding activities that occur occasionally or rarely (Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt, 1999). This reduced definition of the concept seems to favor the activities of younger generations, that is, those more likely to be engaged in occupations and economic activities. This is borne out in the abundance of literature that focuses on corporate, economic, and political1 transnational activities and transfers (Portes et al., 1999) with far fewer examples of research on the transnational domestic sphere (Gardner & Grille, 2002; Kanwal, 2002; Landolt, Autler, & Baires, 1999: cf., Alicia, 1997; Gardner, 2002a; Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997; Salih, 2002) and little on the transnational activities of older people (cf., Treas & Mazumdar, 2002).

Despite the lack of research on the transnational domestic sphere, records indicate that, historically, immigrants have maintained or developed links with their families and communities abroad (for a review of the literature, see Portes et al., 1999). However, it is suggested that these links lacked the regularity and critical mass that characterizes transnationalism today (Portes et al.). Nowadays, "transnationalism is facilitated by "space- and time-compressing technology;" that is, an infrastructure that encompasses new communication technology and relatively easy long-distance travel across borders (Portes et al. …

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