The Truth About "Mail Order Brides"

Written by Abriel Schieffelers

At Oasis, we’re passionate not only about helping people, but also about changing the stereotypes and misconceptions that people have about certain groups of people. We seek to raise awareness in a way that does justice to the complexity of individual stories. 

As you know about our previous posts about human trafficking, there’s a danger in simplifying narratives and breaking people down into “good guys” and “bad guys” The same is true for the phenomenon of “mail order brides,” or what is more accurately called “trans-national marriage migration.” 

We’ve all heard stories, seen documentaries, or witnessed older, white men with young Asian or Eastern European men. Back in the day, these men would often literally “order” these women by mail or online. Today, it’s a little more complex. Many of these couples do meet online, often through dating websites instead of mail-order bride agencies. Some couples meet while the man is visiting Thailand or Russia (or whatever other country). 

And of course, this is not simply a phenomenon of American/European men and Asian/Eastern European women. Recently, there’s been a rise in older European and American women seeking out younger African or South American men. You can read more about that here.

The majority of women the Welkom Project works with are Thai women who have migrated to Belgium for marriage. Some of them come from well-educated backgrounds, while some of them only have a primary school education. Some of them worked in the sex industry in Thailand, others worked at office jobs. Some of them have children back home in Thailand, others don’t. For all of these women, they saw Belgium as a fresh start in their lives. 

All of the women we work with have made difficult decisions at this point in their lives. Some have prioritized sending money home to their families over staying in Thailand with their children. Others have simply sacrificed the comfort of home for the strangeness of a new life. These women also face different realities once moving to Belgium — some of them settle in to a happy marriage and are able to navigate life in a new culture and language. Others experience violence in their marriages and find themselves isolated in a strange country. As Oasis, we far too often see men who simply want to marry a Thai woman she will cook and clean for him, or even work for him while he stays at home. If she doesn’t meet these requirements, he will turn to abuse and violence to get his way. In the worst cases, we have seen Belgian men exploit their wives by forcing them to work in erotic massage parlors and take all their earnings. 

So why would these women move to Belgium in the first place? And why would they stay in the marriage once it turns abusive? There are so many factors at play here — and it’s important to understand the interplay of these factors to understand why it is so appealing for women to migrate for marriage, and so difficult for them to leave when it gets bad. 

One huge factor is economic - and often the unequal power relations between the women and men mirror those of global inequalities. Thai women believe that they will be economically stable once they marry a foreigner, and that they’ll be able to support their children and family by sending money back. 

Another factor is the idealistic view of life in Europe or America Thai women often have. They believe that they’ll be able to travel, have fancy handbags and clothes, and experience a luxurious and happy life once they migrate. In reality, however, many of the men who marry Thai women are living off disability checks or barely making ends meet, but will lie to their girlfriends to convince them to move to Europe with them. 

Finally, Thai women migrate for love. Often, these marriages have a transactional element, but there is some element of love and mutual respect in the relationship. At Oasis, we have heard many women tell us that truly love their husbands and that they believed their partner loved them and would never hurt them before they moved to Europe. 

After years of working with Thai marriage migrants, we at Oasis believe that the primary reason these women don’t leave abusive relationships is their precarious immigration status. There are, of course, cultural taboos regarding divorce, but the strongest motivator is knowing they will be kicked out of the country if they have been married to their Belgian partner for less than five years. Many women hope to “stick it out” for the five years and then divorce their partner and find a better life. In addition to the usual elements that keep women in abusive relationships, immigration status is a huge factor in why women are slow to leave dangerous marriages. 

Trans-national marriage migration is a complex issue due to the ever-present global and gender inequalities that make it easy for women to become victims of violence and exploitation. If you'd like to learn more about trans-national marriage migration, pick up the book "Global Woman" by Barbara Ehrenreich and Arlie Hochschild or the documentary "Love on Delivery" by Sine Plambech and Janus Metz. 

There's still so much more to learn about trans-national marriage migration, the experiences of women who leave behind their families for a new life in Europe, and the challenges they face in their new relationships. At Oasis, we understand that each woman’s situation is different, so we tailor our services to their unique needs. We're committed to hearing their stories, empowering them to flourish in their new home, and raising awareness about this issue, and we'll continue to share with you what we're learning.