The health of those left behind

Studies on the relationship between health and migration often focus on migrants and the communities they enter. However, it must be noted that migration can also have health-related impacts on the communities left behind by migrants. One area of particular importance in Asia is the effect on children when one or both of their parents move away to work on a temporary, but long-term, basis. The dominance of temporary international labour migration in Asia means that most migrants leave their spouse and children behind when they move away to work. The disruption of the nuclear family by this migration is a large-scale phenomenon in the region but little research has examined the health effects on those left behind.

In Sri Lanka, women make up more than a half of international labour migrants and as a result, many mothers are separated for long periods from their children (Asis and others 2004). A study of 400 households in Sri Lanka with overseas migrants found that 50 households reported that children who remained at home suffered significant problems due to the absence of their mothers. The problems most commonly cited were mental and physical health problems along with strains associated with loneliness (Hugo and Ukwatta 2010). Children with parents abroad experienced loneliness and had lower levels of school achievement than those with both parents present. In addition, their social development and psychological and emotional well-being were adversely effected. This was especially the case when it was the mother who was away.

Brockerhoff (1994) analysed demographic and health survey data on child mortality to investigate the significance of rural-urban migration and found the following:

  • Before migration, children of migrant women had similar or slightly higher mortality risks than children of women who remained in the village.
  • In the two-year period following their mother’s migration, children of migrants faced a higher likelihood of mortality than rural and urban non-migrant children. This finding applied to both migrant children who accompanied their mothers and those that stayed behind.
  • Children born after migrants had settled in an urban area, gradually experienced much better survival chances than children of rural non-migrants. They also faced lower mortality risks than children of migrants’ born in rural areas before migration.

More recent studies from other sub-regions show that parental migration may also affect the emotional and psychological well-being of a child left behind (Jones and others 2004). In some instances it may also increase the likelihood of drug abuse and teenage pregnancy (AESCO 2007, United Nations General Assembly 2009).

Kuhn (2003) uses data from an ongoing longitudinal survey in Bangladesh to show that international migration of young men from villages has a positive effect on the health and survival of their parents. However, there are also cases where out-migration can have negative effects in places of origin. Roy and Nangia (2005) show in a study in rural areas of the Indian state Bihar that wives left behind by migrant men had higher levels of reproductive mortality than do the wives of non-migrant men.