█ █ Migrant One-Parent Families in Lower Saxony – Living Conditions between Poverty and Self-Determination

ALMIN scrutinizes dynamics, complexities and diversities of migrant family relations. How do migrant single/lone parents describe and evaluate their situation, self-perceptions, capabilities, coping-strategies and needs? Are there demands and recommendations for action to be identified and addressed on a socio-political level? The research methods consist of three main elements: quantitative secondary analyses (i.e. micro-census), interviews with experts (i.e. lawyers, counsellors, integration commissioners) and – as the core method – about 60 qualitative interviews with migrant lone/single mothers and fathers.


Structures and Dynamics in Migrant Families – Transnational Processes and Global Challenges

23 to 25 April 2015 (Thu – Sat)
University of Oldenburg, Germany
Conference languages: English and German

Dominant discourses on migrant families in various national and regional settings tend to focus on ethnicity and religion, claiming that patriarchal-traditional orders restrict women’s biographical choices and developments. Forced marriage and so-called honour killings have recently attracted the attention of policy makers and media alike – and contribute to the invisibility of those social dynamics in migrant families that cannot be exoticized and scandalized.

The conference takes up these issues and aims at scrutinizing representations of and perspectives on/of migrant families in research and public discourse. It will focus on dynamics of change, concepts, reconceptualization and fragmentations of families within migration contexts, as well as on challenges, strategies, fields of action and (gendered) agencies of both individuals and communities/societies in the broadest sense.

Panel presentations, keynotes and discussions will take place within two frameworks, a practical oriented one and a research oriented one: Results from current research shall be discussed with respect to their implementations for practical contexts, and reports and exchange on practical issues shall be referred to their significance for research. Research from Germany and Europe will be related to analyses from other continents, i.e. Africa.

One issue of the conference are the diverse and complex situations of migrant lone/single parents in different national and international contexts. Furthermore, the concept of a brochure which aims at support for counselling for this population will be presented.

Call for papers

The conference addresses researchers and scholars from disciplines like migration studies, family sociology, gender studies and law, as well as practitioners, e.g. involved in migrant organizations, counselling and social policy. We welcome proposals for papers from academics, practitioners and policy makers. We encourage papers including, but not limited to the following issues:

  • Dynamics and changes in migrant families at local, national and transnational levels,
  • Family structures and global migration processes,
  • Changing migration and family politics at local, national and transnational levels,
  • Impacts of legal rights on migrant family dynamics,
  • Effects of migration processes on family roles, concepts and networks,
  • Socio-political support and counselling.

Please send your 300 word abstract (in English or German) with a brief biographical note and contact details to almin@uni-oldenburg.de . The deadline for submissions is 30th November 2014.

Some travel grants for selected speakers are available. When submitting your abstract, please indicate if you plan to apply for a travel grant. Selected papers will be published in an edited volume.

For up to date information please see www.almin-projekt.de

The conference is organized by ALMIN (Alleinerziehende Migrantinnen und Migranten in Niedersachsen – Migrant Lone/Single Parents in Lower Saxony), cooperative project of Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg and University of Hildesheim, Germany
Supported by Forschungsmittel des Landes Niedersachsen (MWK, PRO Niedersachsen)


The Resident foreign population in Germany forms around 9 % of the total population of 82 millions. These residents are to quite an extent still the outcome of the guest worker programmes (in place until 1973) and the subsequent family migration. The most important group among the resident foreigners are Turkish citizens, in addition refugees and asylum seekers from a variety of countries belong to this category.

In recent micro census the category ‘persons with migrant background’ was introduced – including naturalized citizens from the groups already mentioned plus e.g. the approximately 3,5 millions Ethnic Germans who came to Germany primarily since 1989. Persons with migrant background constitute about 20 % of the population in Germany (i.e. 16 Mio.)

Until very recently the assumption, prevalent in policy and social work contexts as well as in research, was: single parent families are not a relevant type of family in migrant communities. In the major German studies on single parent families migrant families were – often explicitly – not included. The rising number of one-parent-families in the German population, usually mother-families, was interpreted as a differentiation of private life styles and as an individual alternative to the conventional family, requiring public recognition (instead of stigmatization) and calling for adaptations in welfare state provisions.

While the overall image of single parent families may have changed to some extent, the poverty risk is still very high. Although research shows that in most cases single parents at some point in their biography opt for this type of family, this option frequently leads into poverty. Mother-families are the most numerous group among welfare recipients. This is still the case although single mothers have a high employment ratio (60 %) – i.e. labour market access and employment are not sufficient to prevent poverty. To balance childcare and employment, lack of institutional support in combination with often limited labour market skills lead to unemployment or low income part time jobs.

Data and Explorative Interviews

To date, there is no research on migrant one-parent families in Germany available. Some investigations from a social work or advocacy perspective have been done and document the situation on an exploratory level. In combination with statistical data and with the outcomes of explorative interviews conducted in other academic research contexts some general conclusions might be drawn:

  1. One-parent families have become as widely spread in migrant communities as in the general population. Some figures: One in five one-parent families in Germany is of migrant background, among the resident foreign population the ratio even higher: their share of single parent families is 12 % (constituting 9 % of the total population).
  2. The data regarding poverty risks in migrant one-parent families are dramatic. While in the overall population the poverty risk is 14,6 %, it is 2,6 times higher for single parents: 38,5 %. For migrant one-parent families it rises to 50,3 % and for Turkish citizens being single parents it is 65,9 % – Ethnic German one-parent families fare slightly better with a quota of 44,5 %.
  3. In migrant communities as in other contexts, the majority of single parent families are ‘mother-families’ – the difference is that to date in migrant contexts in Germany one-parent families are almost exclusively the result of separation and divorce or partner’s death, while in the overall German population motherhood without prior marriage is also a major option. In migrant contexts the percentage of single parent fathers is slightly higher than in the German population. One of the possible hypothesis in this regard: some women might opt to leave the children with their father, which might be socially more acceptable in contexts where the patriarchal norm is that children belong to the paternal family.
  4. As in the general population, it is predominantly women filing for separation and divorce. It might be interpreted that to leave a dysfunctional marriage is a strategy of individuation and – depending on the country or community of origin – a migration related resource.
  5. A common denominator seems to be that migrant single mothers share a labour market orientation – even with limited education and vocational training – and are aware of their rights as denizens or citizens.

Research Project

ALMIN is the first academic research in Germany focusing on migrant one-parent families. The main research interest is to examine living conditions, family dynamics and strategies for action and support. Relevant dimensions in this context are origins of single parenting, economic resources, poverty and risk of poverty, employment orientation, professional qualification, housing conditions, legal situation, (trans)cultural and family networks, as well as self-concepts, coping strategies and professional support.

The project is funded by the State of Lower Saxony (Stiftung Pro Niedersachsen) and implemented in cooperation between the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg and the University of Hildesheim. The project runs until November 2015

Research Questions and Some Tentative Answers

What role does the welfare state play in the context of migrant one-parent families? Does it empower women or is it a control mechanism?

Tentative answer: access to welfare state provisions is crucial – e.g. supported housing, child allowances, welfare benefits – as labour market participation is difficult, especially formal sector full time employment for low skilled mothers. But welfare state provisions also mean: life on poverty level, excluding namely the children from various educational and social activities and limiting their chances. So while it its very likely that in many cases the welfare state is a condition sine qua non for the decision to become a single parent, it comes also with a specific positioning in the community and in the overall society.

What is the importance of the legal framework? Did certain shifts in legal provisions influence the development?

Tentative answer: Access to citizenship and residential rights as well as legal provisions around divorce and child support are the basis to leave a dysfunctional marriage. The new German citizenship law almost a decade ago opened up specific opportunities: e.g. full access to welfare provisions, no risk of being expulsed because of lack of income.
But there are also other less-well known legal developments that are major preconditions for especially resident foreigners to opt for single parenting. Since the 1990s, divorce laws that are not in accordance with gender equality will not be applied by German courts. Until then, e.g. couples with Turkish citizenship and having married in Turkey, could file for divorce in Germany – but the law applied would have been the Turkish law. This came with the consequence that neither wife nor children living with her were entitled to financial support by the father resp. husband. The different ruling that came into force around 20 years ago seems to be well-known in migrant communities.

Might the emergence of mother-families in migrant communities be interpreted as a result of individuation, a form of overcoming patriarchial dominance in the nuclear as well as in the extended family?

Tentative answer: The exploratory interviews strongly hint into this direction. It is predominantly migrant women who file for divorce and who in the interviews pointed out that it was their decision to leave a dysfunctional and/or violent marriage. Some of these were arranged marriages. The breakup of marriage did not necessarily mean to loose the support of the family network: even in-laws at times continued to support the mother of their grandchildren.
The quantitative dimension – one in eight families with migrant background is a single parent family – hints to a silent revolution in gender and generational relations in migrant families: an increasing number of women finds the individual resource and strength to make crucial decision about their and their children’s life, negotiates this with the husband, the family of origin as well as the in-law family and the German authorities. The new degree of autonomy comes all too often at the price of poverty, but is nevertheless frequently a choice.

Further research questions are: What are the reasons to live as a single parent? How do migrant single parents perceive and cope with their specific situation? What aims and perspectives for their lives do they express? How is the access to resources (i.e. welfare support)?