Australian-born Crown Princess Mary, and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark – and twins.
There can be few extended families today where someone has not married a spouse of a different nationality. In a globalised world, where people go abroad to study, find work, take holidays or to settle, international marriages are increasingly common and are drawing countries closer together. There may be as many as 15 million marriages between people of different nationalities among 25 to 39-year-olds — the majority of them in the richer countries.
The Economist at the weekend ran an interesting feature article on the phenomenon, which some demographers have been beavering away at to discover its scale and precise features. The paper begins with some examples from the political class:
To confine examples to politicians only: the French president Nicolas Sarkozy is married to the Italian-born Carla Bruni and his prime minister François Fillon has a Welsh wife, Penelope Clarke. Nelson Mandela is married to Graça Machel (from Mozambique). Denmark’s new prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt is married to a Briton, Stephen Kinnock. And two leading ladies of Asian countries, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar and India’s Sonia Gandhi, are both widows from international marriages. In rich countries alone such unions number at least 10m.
And let’s not forget royalty — like Princess Mary of Denmark, the Australian girl who married Crown Prince Frederik.
There are difficulties in tracking this trend. Some countries don’t keep good statistics, and there are problems of definition — such as the marriage of two foreigners in a third country. However, some answers are coming.
Distorted marriage markets tend to drive the trend in Asia: Taiwan and South Korea are leaders, but Japan has also seen a steep trend. This is partly due to women in those countries not marrying and the men looking elsewhere. In Europe, gaps in labour markets tend to drive migration and then marriage. In Europe, too, cross-border marriages are more common between people with the same language (German-speaking Swiss will marry Germans, French-speaking Belgians will marry French).
Language remains a persistent barrier to international marriage in Europe and the spread of English as a second language does not seem to have changed that.
The scope for victimisation and trafficking of women, especially in Asia where older men from richer countries take young and poor brides from countries such as Vietnam and China, is an important issue. And yet, this is not the dominant pattern, The Economist reports:
Though the gap in background, age and education between spouses in international marriages is greater than in those between compatriots, it does not seem to affect these unions’ durability. Doo-Sub Kim plotted the time that cross-border marriages have lasted in South Korea against the couples’ ages and educational backgrounds. Amazingly, the bigger the difference, the longer the marriage. It is hard to know why this should be. Maybe those who marry foreigners invest more in their marriages. Or maybe younger, poorer wives find it harder to leave.
Trade links often make a foreign bride invaluable. And it’s not always poor girls who marry rich foreigners:
Not all international marriages in Asia are those of poor brides in rich lands. In a “reverse migration” Japanese women from rich Tokyo have married into poor peasant families in South-East Asia—especially in Bali and Thailand—and settled down to live a more “authentic” rural life, perhaps as a way of escaping the strictness of Japanese family life. That same impulse may well be behind the surprising growth in the numbers of Japanese women married to Africans in Japan (probably as many as 3,300 in all). As one wife told Djamila Schans of Maastricht University, “I had doubts marrying a foreigner but he waited for me at the station every day. Sometimes even with flowers! A Japanese man would never do such a thing.”
Governments are wary of rapid increases in such marriages, but they seem, by and large, for good:
Marriage remains, for the most part, an institution that promotes economic improvement and personal happiness. It also tends to boost social assimilation—the main exception being when a second-generation immigrant weds a girl from a village his parents had left long before. Over the next few years, international marriage is likely to continue its quiet upward crawl. Governments should protect its victims—but not prevent the process.
There is no word in this report about cohabiting couples. Probably the picture is complicated enough already. And, anyway, such unions are much more likely to break up than marriages are. In which case they might help to mix populations up more but they would hardly strengthen international bonds in the way that lasting marriages could.
Graph: The Economist