Every year, South East Asian women by the thousands pack up their belongings and travel hundreds of miles to marry a man they have never met. These women represent a growing migration trend transforming the social fabric of the region: marriage migration. Women travel from Vietnam, Indonesia, China and the Philippines to marry men in South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.

The story is one of gender imbalances, social and economic pressures, transnational business networks, and government policies. In South Korea, government policies provide financial subsidies for international marriages of unmarried rural men, and 40% of rural men’s marriages in that country are now “cross-border.” Hundreds of for-profit marriage brokerages make the arrangements. Nearly half of these marriages involve wives from Vietnam.

Many marriage migrants are young, rural women from poor families. But researchers challenge the depiction of these women as passive victims. The overwhelming majority are driven by a strong desire for social empowerment and a wish to support their origin-country families financially. Nearly 90% of Vietnamese marriage migrants support home-country families in this way.

But the challenges are many. Marriage brokers market these wives as “docile, submissive, and pure.” The women are often expected to focus on having children and caring for their husbands’ extended families, leaving them vulnerable and isolated.  Good waged employment remains elusive – less than 40% of immigrant wives in Korea are employed, and of these, most find only temporary work.

“The type of jobs that they are able to get are very low status. Immigrant women are usually employed as day labourers in the informal sector or in jobs that have no pension system or insurance coverage,” explains Kyung-Eun Yang, New Scholar Associate with the Gender, Migration and the Work of Care Partnership Project. Yang recently completed a massive analysis of survey data examining the labour market integration of immigrant wives in South Korea. She found that they have much less job stability and earn much lower wages than native Korean women workers, pointing to systemic discrimination in the labour market.

What can be done? Researchers note that local governments in South Korea often provide more money to subsidize and promote cross-border marriages than towards programs or policies that would promote the social welfare of the marriage migrants once they arrive.

“The insights gained from looking into this dataset could be very helpful for policy makers,” notes Kyung-Eun. “One way to reduce the discrimination that immigrant wives face when trying to find employment would be to enact and enforce stronger anti-discrimination laws in South Korea.” Other social policies, such as increased educational opportunities and better credential recognition, could also have significant positive impacts.

27%

Percentage of Taiwanese marriages that were cross-border in 2002.

40%

Percentage of marriages in rural areas in South Korea involving marriage migrants.

235,947

Number of immigrant wives in South Korea in 2013.

Doubled

Population of immigrant wives in South Korea since 2010.

36.9%

Percentage of immigrant wives in South Korea who are employed, over half of whom are in temporary work.