Aug 29

The psychological impact of emigration

Mobility is one of the most significant characteristics of our globalized world. This has had a deep impact on families and relationships all over the world and especially in many countries in Africa. Nonetheless even when only one person leaves his or her country emigration is never just an individual event. Both those leaving and those staying behind are deeply impacted by the act of migration.

Until recently, migration research focused primarily on the experiences and stresses of those entering a new country. By comparison little attention was given to the pain and loss experienced by those staying behind. Similarly people did not recognize the fact that even returning to one’s land of birth after an absence can be seen as a new migration as well, and those left behind, are inevitably changed after a period of absence and distance.

The complexities and social losses associated with migration can be somewhat mitigated by embracing a transnational perspective. This describes a new type of migrating population which has at its disposal, networks, activities and ways of life that reflect both their host countries and countries of origin.  In so doing we acknowledge the fact that families can maintain ties and even relationships of care across time and space.

Naturally this has become more possible in recent decades because we now live in a world characterized by accessible means of travelling, where technological media allow instant and regular communication: Opportunities for connection between family members and friends across borders now exist that were previously unthinkable. Gone are the days of letters and expensive telephone calls made only for special occasions. However while making use of all the means at our disposal to maintain connections with those who have left or who are staying behind, we must remain mindful of the fact that many still long for the closeness and physical presence which are also needed to nourish human relationships. Ultimately we would want to experience living with two hearts rather than a broken one.

Maria Marchetti-Mercer is a clinical psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Her most current area of research is the impact of emigration on South African families. She has published widely in this area and has presented her research at a number of conferences both nationally and internationally. She also has a part-time private practice focusing on assisting people and families whose lives have been impacted by migration.  More information on her work can be accessed on her website