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(2019-2020) How anthropological perspectives can improve family tracing and reunification through broadening our understanding of kinship

by | Dec 6, 2019 |

By Jed Allen, Katy Bek, Eleanor Little, Ellika Livingstone, Olivia O’Brien, and Aisling O’Connor

Current family tracing and reunification services in the UK are based on western ideas about family and relatedness. However, using anthropological perspectives on kinship in other cultures could have the potential to improve the efficacy of these services, potentially reuniting more families and reducing the number of orphaned children.

According to the Home Office, decision-makers are legally obliged to aid in the family reunification of an unaccompanied child who is seeking asylum within the UK – with the aim of reaching a ‘durable solution’ as quickly as possible (Home Office, 2017). The guidance offered by the Home Office emphasises the importance of keeping the child sensitively informed throughout the process by liaising with social workers and prioritising the child’s well-being and desires whilst staying alert to signs of abuse, coercion or human trafficking which could cause the child to give misleading information. When questioning the adults in the child’s life, information must be handled very carefully. Although the Home Office acknowledges the possibility that biological kinship ties do not necessarily imply safety or ‘home’ for the child, they are less likely to recognise the legitimacy of non-biological kinship ties.

The British Red Cross is critical of the Home Office system, suggesting that it doesn’t account for dependant adult sons and daughters, who weren’t ‘leading independent lives and would be left in a dangerous situation with no other family support’ (British Red Cross, 2016, p.8). The ‘Torn Apart’ report emphasises the urgent need to acknowledge displaced adult children and suggests giving priority to those who have only recently turned eighteen. It also draws attention to the fact there are no qualifications on step-children or adopted children. UNICEF is also critical, stating UK laws don’t account for children that have been orphaned, which many children involved in conflict are. However, they may have extended family members who can care for them, for which there is no tracing or reunification system in place. Institutions are making progressive suggestions towards improving these services and the Home Office is in the process of revising the system. However, looking at kinship structure further through anthropological perspectives might unveil how the Home Office’s focus on biological kinship could be suppressing the success of family tracing services.

To make family tracing services beneficial to everyone that uses them, it is important to acknowledge cultural differences in who might be considered kin. Displaced people seeking help from family tracing services may come from societies with different understanding of relatedness. Anthropological perspectives on kinship practices might expand the idea of family from that of blood and marriage to encompass broader ideas around families as social systems. Linda Stone (2001) argues that understanding kinship through genealogical methods (a blood tie or marital unit) is a western preconception and is ethnocentric. It ‘axiomatically presupposes that the ties resulting from the engendering and bearing of children are everywhere endowed with special social significance’ (Holy 1996 p.151). 

Other contemporary anthropological accounts have reflected upon kinship with similar sentiments. Erdmute’s (2013) research offers a notion of kinship that differs from the western genealogical conceptions that are followed the UK government’s by family tracing policies. Erdmute’s looks at the Baatombu people of East Benin, who hold associations of shame with biological parenthood, and believe that the child will become spoilt if raised by biological parents. This often results in biological parenthood being denied and children being brought up by foster parents from within their community. Through Erdmute’s we can see how social norms surrounding belonging, rights and ownership come to shape the norms surrounding parentage, and these norms can vary around the world.

Anthropological perspectives on kinship could show that kin networks may not always be based on biological relatedness. Considering this may be useful when providing support and family tracing services to refugees.

Furthermore, the moments after family reunification may not always be joyous, and many difficult emotions can arise after such long periods apart. Some children may have no memory of what their mother or father looked like. This, coupled with the culture shock of arriving in a foreign country can make the adjustment period very difficult. On top of this, there are often language barriers between parent and child as the children may have left their home nation so long ago that they can no longer speak much of the language. This can lead to changing responsibilities for the children as the parents become reliant on them to help them negotiate the bureaucratic hurdles of British life. 

Changes in gender roles can also be a challenge for reunited couples. Males from traditionally patriarchal societies often find it emasculating when they arrive in England and have to take on the role of househusband whilst the wives bring in the pay-checks. However, if negotiated successfully, it can lead to a domestic redistribution of labour and a more egalitarian household dynamic. 

On top of all of these emotional challenges the practical difficulties can be overwhelming. Up to 90% of families become destitute upon arrival and have to scramble for support, often relying on food banks to get them through. To this end the British Red Cross has recently established the Family Integration Service which offers support with accommodation and social and linguistic integration. It aims to plug some of the gaps in government policy and help families get access to crucial services and negotiate the quagmire of red tape (Marsden, 2017). These findings about life after reunification are evidence that further support is needed from the Home Office at this critical time of a refugee’s journey.

Anthropological perspectives on kinship show that relatedness varies between cultures. The Home Office’s practices surrounding refugee family tracing and reunification presumes that refugee kin groups conform to western notions of kinship. Ultimately, this means that kin members from refugee families may be unaccounted for in current tracing and reunification efforts. Taking anthropological perspectives on kinship into account may help tracing and reunification practices by broadening ideas about who is kin, allowing for more family members to be traced and reunited.


British Red Cross (2016). How reuniting families can provide solutions to the refugee crisis. London: British Red Cross. Available at: (Accessed: 4 December 2019) 

Erdmute, A. (2013). Denying biological parenthood: fosterage in Northern Benin. Ethnos, 68(4) pp. 487-506.

Holy, L. (1996). Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London: Pluto Press (Ch1. First Principles pp 1-40). 

Home Office (2017). Family Tracing Version 2.0: Guidance on regulation 6 of the Asylum Seekers (Reception Conditions) Regulations 2005. United Kingdom: Home Office. Available at: (Accessed: 4 December 2019)  

Marsden, P.  (2017). Voices of strength and pain: Impacts of separation, loss and trauma on health and wellbeing of reuniting refugee families. London: British Red Cross. Available at: (Accessed 4 December 2019) 

Stone, L. (2001). New Directions in Anthropological Kinship. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.