Children left behind are the hidden costs of labour migrationLabour migration leads to transnational families which are often dysfunctional, causing adverse psychological impacts on children and adolescents at home.
Prabesh Jha was only 10 years old when his father left for Kuwait to work in a factory. Jha has not seen his father for eight years and he feels a disconnect.
“When we talk on the phone, all we say is how we are,” said Jha, who is now 18. “We are more like acquaintances than father and son.”
In the eight years that Jha’s father has been away, he hasn’t visited home even once.
With thousands of migrant workers leaving the country for work abroad every year, countless children like Jha are left behind to grow up without their fathers and mothers. From 2008 to 2017, Nepal issued a total of 3.5 million labour permits, according to the Asia Foundation. Among them, 85 percent have migrated to Malaysia and the Gulf countries.
Studies show that parent-child separation has a direct impact on the mental and emotional well-being of children. Adverse childhood events correlate positively with worse educational outcomes, feelings of abandonment, adoption of risky behaviour and mental illness.
A 2019 report by the Centre for Mental Health and Counselling Nepal found that children who are left behind were more vulnerable to psychological problems. According to the report, out of 137 children and adolescents whose parents had migrated abroad, 48.2 percent had anxiety, 18.3 percent depression, 8.03 percent suicidal thoughts, 11.68 percent behavioural problems, 2.2 percent severe forms of mental illness while 1.7 percent had attention problems.
Karuna Kunwar, a senior psychologist at the centre and the co-author of a 2019 report on the mental health of the children of migrant workers, said that when it comes to issues related to migration, the most overlooked element is what happens to the children who are left behind.
“During the psychosocial interventions that we conducted, we came across children who hadn’t seen their parents for a decade. They had only seen their father’s or mother’s pictures and heard about them from their family members,” said Kunwar. “Children as young as 10 years old were taking responsibility for their younger siblings in the absence of either or both their parents.”
Transnational migration has led to transnational families, where parent-child relationships are now organised across national boundaries. But studies show that these families are often dysfunctional, causing adverse psychological impacts on the children and adolescents left behind.
Families divided across national borders may reap economic benefits to support their children, but at the same time, they miss out on establishing emotional bonds with their children, said Sunita Basnet, co-author a 2019 research paper on migrant worker’s rights published by Social Science Baha.
“My nephew who is 11 years old and lives with his uncle and aunt addresses his mother as ‘madam’ while she is in South Africa, working to provide her son with a better education and lifestyle,” said Basnet.
Parents go to work abroad with the hope of earning enough money to support their children’s futures but children, on the other hand, are deprived of the love and affection that they need from families for psychological development.
Garima recalls how difficult it was for her to be a guardian to her 12-year-old younger brother and nine-year-old sister when she herself was just 14, after her mother went to Israel to work as a caregiver for the elderly.
“My dad worked at a shop all day while I had to take care of myself and my siblings,” said Garima, who is now 20. She asked that she only be identified by her first name.
Garima tried to be a role model for her siblings but as an adolescent herself, she was unable to provide the kind of guidance young children require. So she doesn’t quite know when or how her brother started taking drugs.
“I felt shattered when I found him unconscious. I felt that I had failed as a sister,” she said. She believes that her brother, who was 17 at the time, was depressed because their mother had left them to go work abroad.
“When my mother returned home after eight years to visit us, we didn’t feel attached to her,” said Garima. “I remember my mother complaining about how her children weren’t giving her any time when my brother snapped at her saying that she had never been there when he needed her and now it was too late.”
According to researchers and psychologists, the effects of migration on the families left require more research. Although there is global evidence of the impact of migration on children and adolescents, there is little local data and research in order to develop targeted responses. A paper in the South-East Asia Journal for Public Health advocates “population-wide awareness programmes, psychoeducation, skills training, psychosocial rehabilitation, and psychological treatment, along with community-based interventions among Nepali children and adolescents”.
But for most parents, migration is a compulsion, and if they had a choice, they would not leave their children behind.
Binod Kunwar, who worked in a factory in Malaysia for seven years, feels that migrant workers like him shouldn’t dwell too much on emotions.
“I didn’t get to see my son for seven years. When I left for Malaysia, he was just seven years old and when I returned, he was all grown up,” said Binod. “I don’t regret being absent from his life. I was busy working to support my family.”
Binod, who had returned home after seven years, will be migrating again.
“My wife is pregnant with our second child,” said Binod. “I have to provide for them.”