November 2019 | Volume 21 No. 1
The Family Effects of Migration
At first glance, the findings on migrant families would overwhelmingly suggest migration does harm. They suffer higher divorce and death rates, for instance, and the children face greater likelihood of being institutionalised. But that portrait tells an incomplete story, says Dr Lucy Jordan of the Department of Social Work and Social Administration. She has been systematically assessing the impact of migration on families and children for over a decade to bring intellectual rigour to policies and support services.
“One of the main things I try to beat the drum about is that context matters – the family context, the community, the accessibility to services in the host and origin communities,” she said. “For instance, we can’t say wholeheartedly that migration is why families crumble. The more likely story is that if there are cracks, they may get larger. And higher death rates may be due to poverty in communities that is exacerbated by a lack of care or physical support as adults migrate to jobs elsewhere.”
Dr Jordan’s research started in 2007–2010 when she was part of a team looking at the impact of parental migration on families in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Their Child Health and Migrant Parents in South-East Asia (CHAMPSEA) project focussed on two cohorts of children, aged 3–5 years old and 9–11 years old, who have been followed up periodically ever since to track their progress.
An early outcome published in 2011, highlighted the complexity of migration. It looked at the impact on children’s psychological well-being based on their age and the duration of time their parent or parents were away, among other factors. “There was a vulnerability among younger children, but less so among the older children,” she said. Tellingly, children in Indonesia showed more vulnerability than those in the Philippines, possibly because of more government and civil society support services for migrant families at the time. Indonesia has since been catching up.
Burden of care
A different but similarly complex story has been found in Cambodia, where Dr Jordan is now doing a consultancy project for the International Organization of Migration. Elderly grandmothers, upon whom childcare tends to fall when parents migrate, have a higher prevalence of depression, anxiety, malnutrition and obesity among the migrating families. But the youngest children, under 12 months old, did surprisingly better when they came from migrant families in terms of nutritional intake, weight and development.
“We haven’t unpacked all the complex inter-relationships, but it may be that caregivers are more willing to give up their own nutritional diversity for the sake of the children,” she said. In any case, the advantages fade by age three.
Migration also seemed to result in teenage boys having higher rates of poor nutrition and stunted growth and less resilience than girls. Yet there were no noticeable differences in overall psychological well-being between teenage children of migrant and non-migrant families.
China is another complicated case because migrants within the country face the obstacle of the hukou, or household registration, which determines access to things like healthcare and education based on where one is born. Dr Jordan studied the effects of the system on Chinese-African couples and found Chinese parents reluctant to bring their child to their hometown for registration because of the discrimination they may encounter. This means the family cannot access certain services.
On the other hand, cross-border children, who have one parent from Hong Kong and the other from Mainland China, have both advantages and disadvantages. Dr Jordan participated in a study that surveyed 2,000 such children, some of whom travelled to Hong Kong every day for school, while others lived in Hong Kong with their parents.
Dr Lucy Jordan (second from left) leading discussion with local policymakers and representatives from international NGOs based on research study findings.
“There have been concerns that the kids travelling across the border may be vulnerable because they have this pretty long commute and may be discriminated against, but we haven t found unilaterally bad outcomes. It depends on the nuance factors – they have bigger homes in Shenzhen and certain aspects of the quality of their lives may be better due to the higher cost of living in Hong Kong,” she said. “So again, context matters. I’m not sure it’s actually migration but other factors that make migration harder to cope with.”
The obvious solution is to provide more resources and support for migrants both at the host and origin countries. A better understanding of migrants and their families can also help.
Dr Jordan is currently looking at the neglected field of inter-generational transfer of migration in which children of migrant workers become migrant workers themselves. She is going back to the 9–11-year-old cohort from Indonesia and the Philippines, who previously were adamant they would not follow in their parents’ footsteps because of the effects on family life.
“These kids are now entering their 20s and we suspect some of them may have now become migrants,” she said. “There is an argument that without structural changes in the origin countries to create labour markets offering more sustainable wages, that kind of migration will keep happening.”
Economic status quo (left) versus growing prosperity (right) among households of migrants in the Philippines illustrate the diversity in migration experiences for the family.
Context matters. I’m not sure it’s actually migration but other factors that make migration harder to cope with.
DR LUCY JORDAN