The phenomenon of families separated across continents is a result of migratory flows in a globalised world. Non-state agencies and Non-Governmental Organisations in migrant sending regions in the Global South estimate that approximately one quarter of all children live with at least one parent living abroad, indicating the scale of this phenomenon (Mazzucato & Schans, 2011).
Transnational families may be defined as families who live apart but retain a sense of collective welfare and identity across national borders (Brycesson & Vuorela, 2002). In this paper the term is used to describe a family where one or both parents migrate internationally requiring children to be raised in transnational child-raising arrangements,Footnote 1 with the help of caregivers. A distinct focus of studies on transnational families concentrates on the emotional and educational impacts of transnational separation on children ‘left behind’ in migrant sending communities (see Battistella & Conaco, 1998; Dreby, 2007; Gindling & Poggio, 2010; Graham et al., 2012; Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997; Kandel & Kao, 2001; Lahaie, Hayes, Markham-Piper, & Heymann, 2009; Poeze & Mazzucato, 2014; Schmalzbauer, 2005; SOROS Foundation, 2007; Suárez-Orozco & Todorova, 2008; Suárez-Orozco, Todorova, & Louie, 2002). A related but smaller body of literature explores the impacts of family separations on migrant parents, and especially on migrant mothers, in migrant receiving societies (Boccagni, 2012; Coe, 2011; Horton, 2009; Laurie, 2007; Schmalzbauer, 2004; Suárez-Orozco & Bernhard, 2008).
This paper provides a comparative analyses of the emotional well-being and health of Nigerian migrant parents living in Ireland and the Netherlands based on a survey of close to 300 migrant parents in each host country. Half of the sample in each country are parents with at least one child in Nigeria (or ‘transnational families’) and half are migrant parents, who live with their children in the host country and therefore are not living in a transnational arrangement (or ‘non-transnational migrant families’). This paper aims to contribute to the literature in a number of important ways. Firstly, the analysis compares parents in Nigerian transnational families with Nigerian parents who live with their children (i.e. non-transnational migrant families) to allow distinguishing outcomes that might be specific to transnational families from those that may be relevant to migrants generally. Secondly, by examining migrants from the same sending country (Nigeria) in two different European countries (Ireland and the Netherlands), the analysis in this study can offer important insights into how historical, political or cultural factors in different host country contexts may play an important role in the specific effects of living in transnational families. Finally, the analysis focuses on African migrant parents in Europe whereas the literature to date has focused predominantly on Asian and South American migrants in the US or European migrants in Europe. Of interest here are West African traditions and practices of child raising which may play a role in shaping the emotional impact on migrant parents of separation from one’s children. Practices of child fosterage, defined as children living away from their biological parents (Oni, 1995) or as raising another’s child as one’s own but without severing the bonds to biological parents (Renne, 1996), is an established practice in Nigeria. The preference is for a close kinship relationship to exist between a foster carer and child such as a biological grandparent or maternal or paternal aunt (Renne, 1993). Child fosterage is not an indicator of parental inferiority as the child is expected to return to the biological family for days or years; rather fosterage is within normative kinship obligations and is often used to support social mobility of the child and his or her family (Okunola & Ikumola, 2010). There are some suggestions within the literature that traditional practices of fosterage such that the maxim ‘every mother regards the child of her sister as her own child’ are changing; and that in present day Nigeria, biological children may be differentiated from fostered children by the school they attend or the domestic activities they do in their fostered parents’ home (Naidu, 1982, cited in Okunola and Ikumola (2010)). However as remittances from transnational migration are often used to pay left-behind children’s school fees and upkeep (Poeze, Dankyi, & Mazzucato, 2017), this may not be the case in transnational families. Okojie (2009) has suggested that the networks of solidarity used to foster children have in some cases degenerated into financial transactions and so socio-economic status of transnational parents may significantly influence transnational child-raising. This paper aims to examine if being a transnational parent has any effect on the health and emotional well-being of migrant parents. Health was measured using a self-assessed health measure. Emotional well-being was measured using a self-assessed life satisfaction and the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12).
Although the extent to which being a transnational parent affects migrant parents’ general well-being is unclear, there are substantial small scale transnational family studies which highlight the negative emotional and health consequences of parent-child separation due to international migration. There are also more recent large scale transnational family studies which quantify the well-being consequences of migration induced separation on children (see Mazzucato et al., 2015) and on parents (Haagsman, Mazzucato, & Dito, 2015). This paper aims to add to these quantitative studies of the impact of separation on migrant parents.
Evidences of emotional costs for migrant parents
More broadly, the evidence from the small scale transnational family literature from Latin America and East Asia emphasizes the negative emotional experiences of migrant parents, especially its gendered dimension. These are documented as early as the 80s for sub-Saharan African transnational mothers living in France who experienced negative health effects by having a child abroad (Afulani, Torres, Sudhinaraset, & Asunka, 2016). More specifically, the literature from Latin America and South East Asia shows transnational mothers feelings’ of ambivalence about mothering from afar, with mothers experiencing migration as a form of self-sacrifice (see Boccagni, 2012) while exposing them to a higher risk of depression (Suárez-Orozco & Bernhard, 2008). Other studies reported transnational mothers’ experiences of stigma, negative sentiment and growing resistances to their migration, particularly in the context of increased demands on caregivers, especially from female family members who take on caregiving roles (Parrenas, 2010).
A strain on mother-child attachment as noted by Schen (2005) and perceived abandonment by left behind children are reported to be some of the reasons why transnational mothers feel anxious, depressed, desperate, and experience ill health (e.g. Coe, 2011; Laurie, 2007). These are inextricably linked to the social and cultural norms that may impact upon transnational parents who are separated from their children. For example, the literature indicates that one of the most significant challenges transnational parents face is around child-raising arrangement for their younger left behind children (Carling, Menjívar, & Schmalzbauer, 2012). While cultural norms dictate family members’ obligations to support these children, they simultaneously evoke negative attitudes on the absent parent. For example, Hondagneu-Sotelo and Avila (1997) show how initiating separations from communities, families, and (sometimes) spouses results in negative emotions due to feelings of guilt, shame as well as criticism from others. Pustułka (2012) notes similar findings of guilt about being ‘bad mothers’ for Polish transnational migrant mothers in European migrant receiving societies.
Given the focus of these small scale, ethnographic studies on mothers, the emotional cost of transnational parenting is mostly focused on this group, implying that fathers may not have similar experiences. Studies have shown transnational fathers point to the importance of providing for families through remittances and gifts and that this contributes to their sense of themselves as ‘good fathers’ (see Dreby, 2006; Pribilsky, 2004). This highlights how traditional gender roles & norms might shape emotions and parenting practices in transnational families (Carling et al., 2012). In light of this, some studies indicate that while there are similarities in parenting practices of transnational mothers and fathers, coming to terms with distance and separation may be emotionally easier for fathers than it is for mothers (Avila, 2008; Laurie, 2007). Ryan, Sales, Tilki, and Siara (2009) point to migration resulting in a double of caring responsibilities for female migrants as they must care for family members (including in some cases their children) in both emigration and immigration contexts and countries.
While research on transnational parenting has dramatically increased over the last two decades for most of this period transnational parenting was synonymous with transnational motherhood. Souralová and Fialová (2017) argue that explorations of the interaction between gender roles and parenting assumed these were central to the experiences of female migrants but were largely of marginal importance to male migrants. The insertion of fathers into the literature and research on transnational parenting has reproduced gendered stereotypes by focusing on fathers as breadwinners and as remote, distant authoritarian figure (Souralová and Fialová, 2017). However, certain (again small scale qualitative) studies have focused on transnational fathers and explored fathers’ experiences of severe loneliness, depression and abuse of alcohol arising as a result of their separation from children (Schmalzbauer, 2005). Schmalzbauer (2015, p. 214) has developed this perspective arguing that the picture that emerges of the emotional costs of transnational fathering (compared to mothering) is “less clear because fatherhood tends to be constructed around provision and authority, there is no cultural script for how fathers should maintain an emotional connection with children in the context of family separation”.
Potential factors for emotional costs
The small scale transnational family literature paints a picture of guilt ridden, depressed, and anxious migrant parents, particularly in the case of the migrant mothers. However, few of these small scale studies systematically investigated whether these experiences are distinctly associated with only separating from children or are as a result of some other mediating factors. As Carling et al. (2012) argue the care arrangements in transnational families entail the intersection of material and emotional concerns, thus, it is important to disentangle the different factors that contribute to the negative emotional experiences of these parents.
Generally, research has stressed that migrants are more likely to face additional health and emotional difficulties to wellbeing than native-born populations because of the social and economic problems they face due to e.g. discrimination, social isolation, and lack of legal documents as migrants (see Avila, 2008; Bernhard, Landholt, & Goldring, 2005; Jolivet et al., 2012). As such, at the heart of the frustration felt by transnational parents could be their class position in the host country as migrants, in particular if they are undocumented or are in a state of continuous insecure legal status (Carling et al., 2012; Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012). Bernhard et al. (2005) found that being separated from children was not associated with elevated health risks for transnational parents; however perceived discrimination in the receiving country was associated with decreased emotional well-being for this group. These perceived discriminations could be due to immigrants limited integration in the labor market of the destination country (Teixeira & Dias, 2018).
Other evidence indicates that undocumented migrants and their families have limited access to quality health care (Boccagni, 2015; Devillé et al., 2011) illuminating one of the dimensions of how migrants’ well-being could be affected in the context of international migration. Thus legal status appears to be an important mediating variable in shaping the health of transnational parents as well. Similarly, feelings of sacrifices reported by transnational mothers in some studies can be linked to how they are incorporated differently to the destination country’s labour market, a result due to an undocumented status as found by Abrego (2009) for El Savadorian transnational mothers in the US. Abrego argues that these mothers are exposed to vulnerable working conditions with longer hours of work so that they consistently remit a large proportion of their small income, a sacrifice facilitated by the gendered expectations of El Savadorian motherhood. Recent qualitative study also confirms these consequences of illegality on the working conditions of Latina migrant mothers in the US (Abrego & Schmalzbauer, 2018). The frustration and the anxiety felt by transnational parents could be due to their indefinite separation from their children, making the family reunification project intractable (Schmalzbauer, 2004; Fresnoza-Flot, 2009; González-Ferrer, Baizán, & Beauchemin, 2012). In contrast research on transnational care and migration among Polish migrant communities in Europe suggest that the numbers of Polish children living apart from migrant parents has declined in recent years as families avail of the right to move freely across the EU (see White, 2016).
Thus, what complicates the health and emotional wellbeing concerns in transnational caregiving arrangements are the socioeconomic status and the documented status that invariably shapes parents’ propensity to remit (Held, 2017); to reunify (Menjívar, 2006); and to communicate regularly (Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012; Poeze et al., 2017). In the latter case, Peng and Wong (2013) found that the emotional costs of separation from children may be mitigated by transnational mothers’ use of ICT to maintain meaningful relationships with children. Many studies from different regions indicate the important meaning attached to remittances, in which the remitter feels and is seen by family members back home as fulfilling a fundamental aspect of family obligations (e.g. Hall, Garabiles, & Latkin, 2019; Kelly & Lusis, 2006; Lahaie et al., 2009; Wong, 2009).
These are all important elements that contribute to a trustful and easy relationship in transnational care arrangements (Dankyi, Mazzucato, & Manuh, 2017) and potentially contributing to a better wellbeing for all actors involved. More recent quantitative studies confirm the important role documented status has on transnational parents’ well-being (Dito, Mazzucato, & Schans, 2017; Haagsman et al., 2015).
Children’s and migrant parent relationship, life satisfaction and emotional wellbeing
A recent large scale study on African transnational families in the Netherlands shows the positive correlation between parent-child relationships and higher life satisfaction (Haagsman et al., 2015). This is reflective of the findings from the small scale studies which documented that transnational child care complicates the relationship that transnational parents have with their children in origin countries (Aguilera-Guzmán, de Snyder, Romero, & Medina-Mora, 2004; Coe, 2008; Dreby, 2006).
In order to address the question of whether being separated from children has a negative impact (or not) on a transnational parents’ health and emotional well-being researchers must disentangle effects associated with the characteristics of the transnational parent such as education status, income generating opportunities, lack of documentation a with separate living arrangements as a member of a transnational family.
Across a range of studies, transnational parents report feelings of guilt, loss and loneliness due to their separation from their children (see Boccagni, 2012; Coe, 2011; Hondagneu-Sotelo & Avila, 1997; Laurie, 2007; Parrenas, 2010; Pustułka, 2012; Suárez-Orozco & Bernhard, 2008). In other studies parents’ feelings are located within culturally and contextually specific relations and factors that appear to mitigate these emotional and health-related impacts (see Dankyi et al., 2017; Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012; Peng & Wong, 2013; Poeze et al., 2017).
Many researchers report that gender plays a key role in shaping the impact of how separation from children influences transnational parents, however these impacts are interpreted in contradictory ways (for example see Avila, 2008; Carling et al., 2012; Dreby, 2006; Laurie, 2007; Pribilsky, 2004; Ryan et al., 2009; Schmalzbauer, 2005, 2015; Souralová & Fialová, 2017). It is important to recognise that these findings are almost all based upon qualitative data produced through small scale research projects. Very few studies are based on large scale survey based quantitative analysis on the effects of separation on transnational parents (for an example see Haagsman et al., 2015).
Many studies do not include control groups (migrants who are not separated from their children) that can assist in determining whether these outcomes are specific to transnational parents. In addition most studies are based on migrants moving to one host context/country (i.e. single flows of migrants between one country of origin and one host country). Some compare the situations of different groups of migrants in the same host contexts (Leifsen & Tymczuk, 2012). None explore the empirical realities of living in transnational families among migrant parents from the same origin country who live in different host countries (which might allow identification of the significance of migratory context and legal regimes in shaping the emotional well-being and health of parents).
This paper aims to address these concerns and gaps in research via an analysis of data produced in a large scale survey with Nigerian migrant parents in Ireland and the Netherlands. This data includes migrant parents living with all family members in the respective destination countries as well as those separated from one or more of their children. The data also includes migrants from one country of origin (Nigeria) living in two host countries (Ireland and the Netherlands). For the purposes of this study we hypothesise that being in a transnational family has a negative impact on the emotional well-being and health of parents from Nigeria in Ireland and the Netherlands that is more pronounced than other social factors – including gender, migrant status, education and socio-economic status. The following section details important comparisons between Nigerian migrants in Ireland and the Netherlands (w.r.t. the history of immigration from Nigeria from the mid-1990s and similarities in the age, gender and household composition of Nigerian migrants in both societies) as well as important differences (w.r.t. the history of immigration generally into both societies and the dominant route ways through which migrants from Nigeria enter Ireland and the Netherlands). An examination of the impact of transnational separation on migrant parents in both contexts will help illuminate the significance of these other social factor (including gender, migrant status, education and socio-economic status).
Both Ireland and the Netherlands had very small numbers of Nigerian migrants up until the mid 1990s when financial collapse and political repression in Nigeria created new forms of emigration patterns, leading to a surge in the number claiming asylum across Europe (Carling, 2006; see also IOM, 2009; and Komolafe, 2008). The majority of Nigerian migrants to Ireland have been prompted by either economic necessity or as a result of political/ethnic/cultural conflict and violence (Komolafe, 2008).
At the turn of the century the numbers of people claiming asylum in the Republic of Ireland increased dramatically from a handful (40) in 1993 to over 11,000 in 2002. Over this time period the majority of asylum applications were made by African nationals and the largest group within this population are Nigerians, so much so that this has been reflected in racialised discourses in Ireland that have conflated ‘asylum-seeker’, ‘African’ and ‘Nigerian’ in debates about immigration, asylum and Irishness (Lentin & McVeigh, 2002). Between 2000 and 2006 Ireland moved from being an insignificant destination point to having the highest number of Nigerian asylum applicants in the EU (Carling, 2006). Asylum applications from Nigerian nationals increased rapidly to about 4000 per year in 2002. These tailed off in subsequent years, approximately the same number of Nigerians claimed asylum over the entire period 2006 to 2011 (IOM, 2009). In 2012 19,780 people who had been born in Nigeria were resident in Ireland (Central Statistic Office, 2012). The asylum process is certainly the most important mode of entry for Nigerian migrants to Ireland, however it is not the only route for Nigerian migrants (Komolafe, 2008).
While numbers of Nigerian asylum seekers in Ireland rapidly increased after 1996, in the Netherlands a strikingly small number of Nigerians sought asylum (at this time Nigerians were the fifth largest asylum seeker group in Europe (Carling, 2006). A significant number of Nigerian migrants residing in the Netherlands are undocumented migrants although exact numbers are unknown. In 2012 the total number of Nigerian migrants (including first and second generation) in the Netherlands was 11,196, representing a threefold increase since the mid 1990s. Van Heelsum and Thomas (2006) point out that some of the Nigerian migration to the Netherlands is in order to marry a Nigerian migrant already resident in the Netherlands.
While there are important differences between Nigerian migrants to Ireland and the Netherlands with respect to the routes taken by migrants, there are important characteristics shared by the Nigerian population in both countries. In 2008 the Nigerian community in Ireland was profiled by the Irish Central Statistics Office alongside other ‘non-national’ groups in a “population profile” series. The age profile for the Nigerian population in 2006 differed significantly from other migrant groups (as well as the majority host population) in that one in four Nigerians were aged less than 15 while only 15% were in their twenties. A majority of Nigerians lived in family groups with at least one child who was an Irish citizen. Many of these children were quite young (below 10) and had been born in Ireland. The Nigerian population was concentrated in Irish towns and cities, with only 4% of the Nigerians living in ‘rural areas’ while 40% of the total population of Nigerians lived in Dublin City or suburbs.
In 2011 in Ireland the Nigerian population was female-dominated, with large proportions in their 30s or 40s and very early teens (Central Statistic Office, 2012). In part this was as a result of the specific circumstances of Irish citizenship law (which up until a referendum in 2004 was automatically granted to children born on the island of Ireland). This right to citizenship and the practice in Irish courts to interpret the ‘right to family’ for Irish citizens opened what was argued to be a ‘loophole’ allowing migrant parents remain legally in Ireland with their Irish born citizen children (see White & Gilmartin, 2008 for further details). Iroh (2010) argues that the desire for legal residence and citizenship attracted Nigerian migrants to Ireland in the early years of the twentiethcentury and that this can be understood as a strategy of the ‘feminisation of survival’ enacted through “the strategic deployment and practice of motherhood” (p.19).
Similarly the majority of Nigerian migrants arrived in the Netherlands at a child-bearing age, the Nigerian population in the Netherlands was rather young in comparison to other new immigrant groups a high share of Nigerians were married with children and living in a household with these children (Van Heelsum & Thomas, 2006). According to Van Heelsum & Thomas this was the result of the fact that Nigerians migrated relatively more often to the Netherlands as a marriage partner of an already resident Nigerian migrant. As a result of this at the start of Nigerian migration to the Netherlands men were in the majority, however, over time, there has been a feminization of migration whereby sex ratios have evened out. In 1996, 35% of Nigerian migrants in the Netherlands were female, but by 2011 this increased to 46%. In 2011 the relatively youthful Nigerian population was partly a result of the large group of Nigerian children that were born in the Netherlands (by 2003 40% of the Nigerian population were children born in the Netherlands (Van Heelsum, 2005)). Finally the Nigerian population in the Netherlands is heavily urbanised, most Nigerians reside in Amsterdam, followed by the Hague, Rotterdam and Utrecht.
Currently Ireland has no formal legal framework for family reunification for anyone who is not a recognised Convention refugee (CADIC, 2006). Individuals must apply on a case by case basis to be reunited with family members to the Minster for Justice and Equality. The lack of transparency in the Irish family reunification system coupled with the length of time many Nigerians spend in the asylum process (where they have no access to family reunification) has meant that family reunification rates are very low in Ireland by European standards. The Netherlands has become restrictive on immigration laws in general and family reunification policies in recent years (Bruquetas-Callejo, Garcés-Mascareñas, Penninx, & Scholten, 2007). Laws introduced in 2005 require family members wishing to reunite to learn the Dutch language and Dutch culture before migrating to the Netherlands. Stricter income requirements and qualification on who should be allowed to be reunified have also been introduced. Despite these very real restrictions and limitations, it remains the case that the numbers of Nigerians entering the Netherlands on family reunification permits is much higher in the Netherlands than it is in Ireland. Thus in both countries restrictive family reunification and immigration policies will have contributed to the number of enforced and prolonged family separations. However the relative impact is likely to be greater in Ireland as a result of the lack of any transparent system coupled with the length of time Nigerians are stuck in the asylum system.