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A scarring effect of having been left behind: Experience of transnational family separation and mental health in immigrant adults

Despite evidence that transnational family separation is a common experience in many high emigration countries and their diaspora, quantitative literature exploring the consequences of this phenomenon on the mental health of the individuals who experience(d) it in the context of migrations to Europe is still limited. Qualitative and quantitative evidence from other migration chains indicates that transnational family separation can have long term detrimental consequences on separated children, even after (and if) they reunite with their parents in the destination country. In this article, I investigate whether this holds in the UK. Using Understanding Society data, I test whether adult immigrants who experienced transnational family separation before moving to the UK have worse mental health than immigrants who moved with their parents as children or youth. Results indicate that women who experienced transnational family separation in childhood/youth tend to have worse mental health than those who migrated with their parents, even long after reunification, while no difference is found between men who did or did not experience transnational family separation. These results stress the importance of further developing (quantitative) research on the association between transnational family separation and mental health in Europe, and of considering the wellbeing of immigrants and of their families in immigration policymaking.

Parenting from abroad: mental health of immigrant parents with children left behind.

Restrictive immigration policies and financial concerns often lead families to separate across borders in the migration process. This transnational family separation, which often lasts years, can potentially have long lasting negative consequences on migrant parents’ mental health. Indeed, qualitative research has documented that transnational parents often report feelings of guilt, sadness and loneliness due to the separation, and that financial or legal precarity can exacerbate these feelings. On the other hand, quantitative research on this topic is scarce, mostly based on relatively small samples and on cases studies of single origin groups in single destination countries, has measured transnational parents’ mental health disadvantage using less than ideal control groups, and has not investigated potential long-lasting consequences of separation after reunification. In this article, I advance this literature using data from the French survey Trajectoires et Origines 2 to investigate differences in mental health between transnational parents, parents who migrated with their children, and parents who reunited with their children after a period of separation. I additionally look at heterogeneities by gender, age of the transnationally separated children, legal status, and employment status. I find that transnational fathers and mothers have significantly worse mental health than parents who migrated with their children, especially when the separation involves minor children. The mental health of formerly transnational parents does not differ significantly from that of parents who migrated with their children, suggesting that reunification might be sufficient for recovery.