By Fiske S. Nyirongo
THE International Organization for Migration (IOM) noted in a brief report in 2015 that migration was becoming an important issue in the global development agenda. It noted as well that there’s less attention placed on the families of migrants, in particular the left-behind children of migrant workers.
Labour migration from countries like Zambia to other countries helps to improve the financial status of families. Remittances sent by migrants around the world also make up a large percentage of foreign exchange in developing countries.
These migrants often have to make a choice, to leave behind their family or to fight to get their families to live with them which is an added expense when initially migrating.
This was the case for the Siwale family based in Livingstone, Zambia. Their father, a nurse, migrated to Botswana in 2002. He initially left his family behind for ten months before taking them with him. “One of the challenges I faced was that of the language barrier. I had to learn a new language since English is not a frequently used language in Botswana.
Another challenge was that no matter how comfortable life was there I still didn’t feel like I belonged there because I was a foreigner,” Sally Siwale, the oldest child said. Sally returned to Zambia for schooling eventually. Her parent’s decision is growing increasingly common among some migrant families. Sally Siwale said as years have passed by it has been hard to relate to members of her extended family because of the changes caused by migration.
This has been the same case for the Banda family based in Gaborone, Botswana. Their family migrated from Malawi in the late 1990s. They migrated with their children but after a few months in Botswana, they decided to send their children to Zambian schools. “It was hard to fit in in Botswana because of different language and culture,” their daughter Miriam said.
Miriam’s parents said Zambian schools were cheaper compared to schools in Botswana. Miriam continued her education in Zambia when she graduated from secondary school. In her first year of university, Miriam discovered she was pregnant.
Miriam was 18 years old at the time, she decided to keep her baby and at the same time decided to not tell her parents. “I thought they wouldn’t understand. I did not want to add on to the stress they had.” Miriam also added that she felt that her parents were not her confidantes, they were there only to ensure that she had her basic physical needs met. Her parents learned about the new development in her life when she gave birth to a premature baby and was unable to take care of herself due to depression. The challenges Miriam faced due to migration are common across cultures and ethnicities.
In 2018, 91 studies were conducted in China which focused on the effects of internal labour migration on left-behind children. The studies compared the overall health of non-migrant children to left-behind children. It was found in one study that left-behind children had an increased risk of depression and higher depression scores.
The 2015 IOM report collected data from studies conducted in Asia and found that children of surveyed Asian migrants were more likely to suffer from mental health and psycho-social problems than children of non-migrants. In one study conducted in Thailand in 2014, it was found that the earlier a parent, especially a mother, migrated in a child’s life, the more likely that child was to suffer from mental health problems.
Prolonged periods of separation between parents and their children have other risks like injury, this risk is usually found in younger children. In an article titled The Impact of Parental Migration on Injuries Among Left Behind Young People Aged 10 to 24 24 Years, Doctor Lesego Selotlegeng, a Botswana based lecturer notes that there is increased risk to injury when children are left behind by migrant parents, especially those left in the care of older guardians like grandparents.
Doctor Selotlegeng noted that accidents ranging from burns to poisoning was higher among left-behind children than their non-migrant peers. She also found that injury was higher among female left-behind children than male left-behind children. The final statistic Doctor Selotlegeng indicated that fire injuries were the most common injury found in left-behind children. This can be linked to the lack of adult supervision and the daily use of fire in households.
Ian Mulenga was a precocious boy when he was younger. His father shared a story with me which occurred about ten years ago. “Ian said to me, Daddy do you want to watch me fly?” Ian was four years old at the time, he had gone to the pit at the back of their house in Lusaka and stood at the edge. “He thought he would fly over the pit,” his father said.
He had a broken arm and some cuts on his body at the end of this adventure. Ian’s mother had migrated to Botswana years before his birth to work as a midwife, Ian was born in Botswana. But it was decided that Ian and his siblings would live in Zambia. “It was hard to keep up with him. At some point we had different people coming to look after him but they quit the job after a short period. So we decided for my wife to return to Zambia for his sake.”
The Mulenga family had a comfortable life with the salary the mother earned in Botswana, but she saw that the money she earned was not making a difference due to her child getting hurt due to lack of supervision at times.
She, like other migrants who return to their country, had found that there were no adequate support systems in place to help labour migrants, especially women, who have children they leave behind.
In the closing remarks of the report, the IOM implored world governments, organizations and researchers to provide evidence-informed voices on the health status of migrants and their families. This will help to address the challenges faced by children left behind by their migrant parents.