Effects of Migration on Child Well-being

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The true measure of a nation’s standing is how well it attends to its children – their health and safety, their material security,their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born.

International Migration

International migrants are defined as persons who take up residence in a foreign country, herewith excluding rural to urban movements[2]. Migration has a crucial impact on the economic and social development of the whole world. But, what specific effects does migration have on the well-being of children that make up the future of those economies and societies? The topic of child well-being related to migration causes many disputes in terms of choice of measurements, definitions and views. According to the 2007 World Development Report, the focus on children and migration has been neglected in the past. It is still a fairly new research area that will be developed in the close future. Children are the most vulnerable to risk when being left behind by one or both parents, migrating with the family or alone. The well-being of children affects their development into adulthood and thus sending remittances to their home country, acquiring skills that can benefit their home country or host country when chosen to stay. Immigrants close the large gap between birth and death rates in developing and developed countries, thus they reduce the shortage of labor supply and prevent the collapse of social security systems.

A vast variety of aspects have to be examined to understand the effect of migration, the following seem to be the most discussed[3]:

  • Voluntary or involuntary migration? Illegal immigrants are considered to be the most vulnerable group, since their status does not allow them to receive the same social and legal treatment. However, the type of migration is not always easy to distinguish; whether one considers migration due to the lack of employment as voluntary or not is disputable for example.
  • Permanent, long-term, short-term-labor migration or transnational migration when there is a permanent circulation between the home and host country?
  • The age at the time of migration? This is especially important when the decision is taken by the parent(s) or the child as an independent agent.

Economic and Demographic Motivations

There are several reasons for migration that are discussed within the Neoclassical Economics Theory, the Segmented Labor Market Theory, and the World Systems Theory. One of the most prominent reasons is the real wage gap, but economic disparities are not the only reason for migration- especially not when considering young people. Todaro[4] and Lewis discuss the push and pull factors[5], showing that young people have higher future returns and lower costs of moving. Another important name here is Mincer, who emphasizes the importance of family ties that determine the personal gain. The New Economics of Migration discusses migration in terms of the function of the member within the family. In many societies, the parents have more power over young women than men, resulting in more girls being sent abroad than boys. The Segmented Labor Market Theory[6] explains that developed countries have a permanent demand for migrant workers because of upward inflexible wages and the lack of motivation for native people to take on less desired placements. The World System Theory[7] highlights the importance of globalization through which young people can widen their horizon and acquire new skills.

The Well-being Concept

The well- being in defined through the current standard of life. Initially it has been measured through the income per capita, but this showed itself to be insufficient to explain such a complex concept. The capability approach, introduced by Sen[8], looks at freedom, human rights and defines human well-being in terms of functioning and capabilities, where functioning are achievements of human well-being and capabilities the ability to achieve them. Thus, well- being refers to being able to live a long, healthy and educated lifestyle that is locked within a decent social security system that one is allowed to and capable to use. A vast variety of measurements, such as average life expectancy, school enrollment and literacy rates for example, can be used in this discussion. However, the question of how to measure the happiness of children is not easily resolved. The dimensions depend on the availability of data and the distinction between doing well and being well has to be emphasized throughout the research. The following dimensions of well-being were established by UNICEF to examine child well-being[9]

  • Material well-being
  • Health and Safety
  • Educational well-being
  • Relationships
  • Behaviors and Risks
  • Subjective well-being

Those are neat categories, but it is not always clear whether a particular characteristic is a problem or only correlated with one. Thus, very different outcomes can be found throughout the report. Well-being can be explained as the following function:
Well-being of migrant children= f (H,B,C,D etc)[10]
H is the vector of human capital variables, for example age, health care access, educational opportunities. B stands for demographic and economic characteristics such as gender and race.Ccan be the vector of the country of origin and D captures the effects that are particular to immigrant groups.

Effects of Migration on different Well-being Components for Children


Lower educational achievements of immigrants is still an ongoing challenge[11]. The socioeconomic background and family situation, problems of integration, language difficulties, school segregation, process of selection of migrants, level of parents’ education and time since migration are crucial factors that affect the education of migrated children. Heckmann[12] however, suggests that parental care and family resources are far more important to increase the wish for higher education than the family income. Being from a different country oftentimes creates problems of acceptance and being subject to racism between children. The lack of the possibility to communicate with teachers about questions hinders the learning process and the lack of parent’s education or being from a different system that explains studies differently diminish the success. Lower educational achievements among the migrants explain the dense concentration of migrant employees in certain job sectors. Migrant youths often tend to work only in distinct occupations. The most frequent jobs for young men are particularly involving heavy manual labor like construction or agriculture, and young women tend to work in the service sector[13]. On average the 2nd generation is better educated than the first, but compared to the natives this generation is still disadvantaged[14]. It takes much time to even out the educational achieved standards between migrants and natives; school segregation does not show a positive impact on this. Oftentimes, migrant children are accepted into schools that have already a large population of migrants. Thus, their language skills do not develop much further or develop into their own particular mix of two languages together. Those students tend to stay together in their native groups and are so excluded from the social opportunities within the host country. In Germany for example this phenomena is found repeatedly; a large set of migrant students are found in the so called Hauptschule. Participation rates in after school programs are also substantially lower for immigrant children than for natives[15]. Thus, as a result of low income, lack of language proficiency and low parental education places immigrant children at higher risk that affects their well-being intensely that tends to persist over generations.

Social Exclusion

Social Exclusion is defined as the ‘inability to participate in economic, social, and cultural life, and in some characteristics, alienation and distance from mainstream society’[16]. The most frequent reasons for social exclusion is related to the family situation such as divorce, separation, and death of the parent as well as prejudice and discrimination of certain groups of the population[17]. A study conducted by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia[18] shows that the labor market in the EU is highly segmented with respect to nationality or ethnic groups. The children in households where at least one parent is born abroad are known to incur the risk of poverty five times higher than the children that have parents who were born in the country of residence[19]. Surly, this has a heavy effect upon the future work placements, decisions, and mental health problems of the children. Social exclusion is a burden for the society that transmits poverty from generation to generation.


On one hand migration shows the positive effect of increasing health access in the countries of origin through sending remittances. On the other hand, however, the negative side of migration is the transmission of diseases. A very important aspect of migration is the mindset of the migrants that are used to their particular health services and coping with their country specific maladies. Their habits may have to change when moving to a host country and the language barrier causes constraints and thus to greater risk of poor health outcomes of children[20]. If children learn the foreign language faster than their parents, the latter will urge their children to communicate with the authorities. Sometimes, this responsibility is given into the hands of very young children, and imposing pressure upon them. Migration also has a serious effect on the mental health of the children regarding the process of migration, which causes stress due to the loss of family, friends, and habitual surroundings. Questions about their identity and sense of belonging, the fear of deportation, and discrimination cause problems that are taken into adulthood.


Within the context of international mobility, the growing mobility of women with their families and alone becomes prominent. This shows the increase in greater gender equity and empowerment of women, but simultaneously increases their vulnerability depending on the situation women find themselves in the host country.


‘Linear’ assimilation[21] typically occurs after two or three generations in the destination countries, when socio-economic differences diminish between the natives and migrants. The segmented theory suggests three different routes of integration; upward mobility into the middle class, downward mobility into the underclass, and the advancement within the ethnic community. However, there is also the possibility of disadvantage when groups do not attain the decrease in cultural or language barriers and so face exclusion[22]. Efficient public policies and control is needed to care for the most vulnerable in our society, especially at the age when they cannot behave as agents for themselves. To be able to generate those policies, precise research for data collection is needed, that should be developed much further than it is today. Certainly, much will remain to be dependent on the parents as the family unit. Nevertheless, policies and possibly different school systems are needed to prevent decades of migrants to stick in their poverty trap due to lack of education, language proficiency and discrimination.

See also


  1. UNICEF (2007), Child Poverty in Perspective: An overview of child well‐being in rich countries – A comprehensive assessment of the lives and well‐being and adolescents in the economically advanced nations, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre Report Card 7, Florence.
  2. Harttgen, Kenneth, and Stephan Klasen. "Well‐being of Migrant Children and Migrant Youth in Europe." University of Göttingen,, July 2008. Web. 15 July 2011. <http://globalnetwork.princeton.edu/publications/interest/34.pdf>.
  3. Harttgen, Kenneth, and Stephan Klasen. "Well‐being of Migrant Children and Migrant Youth in Europe." University of Göttingen,, July 2008. Web. 15 July 2011. <http://globalnetwork.princeton.edu/publications/interest/34.pdf>.
  4. Todaro, M. P. (1969), A Model of Labor Migration and Urban Unemployment in Less Developed Countries, The American Economic Review, 59 (1): 138‐148.
  5. Lewis, A. (1954), Economic development with unlimited supplies of labour, Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, 22: 139‐191.
  6. Piore, M. J. (1979), Birds of passage, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  7. Sassen, S. (1988), The Mobility of Labour and Capital, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Sen, A.K. (1992), Inequality Reexamined, Harvard University Press: Cambridge
  9. UNICEF (2007), Child Poverty in Perspective: An overview of child well‐being in rich countries – A comprehensive assessment of the lives and well‐being and adolescents in the economically advanced nations, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre Report Card 7, Florence.
  10. Harttgen, Kenneth, and Stephan Klasen. "Well‐being of Migrant Children and Migrant Youth in Europe." p.43 University of Göttingen,, July 2008. Web. 15 July 2011. <http://globalnetwork.princeton.edu/publications/interest/34.pdf>.
  11. Hernandez, D. (2004), Demographic change and the life circumstances of immigrant families, The Future of Children, 14: 17‐48.
  12. Heckmann, J. J. (2000), Policies to Foster Human Capital, Research in Economics, 54 (1): 3‐56.
  13. World Bank (2007), World Development Report 2007, World Bank: Washington
  14. Harttgen, Kenneth, and Stephan Klasen. "Well‐being of Migrant Children and Migrant Youth in Europe." p.55 University of Göttingen,, July 2008. Web. 15 July 2011. <http://globalnetwork.princeton.edu/publications/interest/34.pdf>.
  15. Reardon‐Anderson, J. R. Capps, and M. Fix (2002), The Health and Well‐being of Children in Immigrant Families, The Urban Institute Working Paper, Series B, No. B‐52, The Urban Institute, Washington.
  16. Duffy, K. (1995), Social Exclusion and human dignity in Europe, Council of Europe, Strasbourg.
  17. Harttgen, Kenneth, and Stephan Klasen. "Well‐being of Migrant Children and Migrant Youth in Europe." p.60 University of Göttingen,, July 2008. Web. 15 July 2011. <http://globalnetwork.princeton.edu/publications/interest/34.pdf>.
  18. EUMC (2003), Migrants, Minorities and Employment: Exclusion, Discrimination and Anti‐Discrimination in 15 Member States of the European Union, European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia.
  19. European Commission (2008), Child Poverty and Well‐Being in the EU – Current status and way forward, The Social Protection Committee.
  20. Mendoza, F. S., J. R. Javier, and A. E. Burgos (2007), Health of Children in Immigrant Families, in J. E. Lansford, K. Deater‐Deckard, and M. H. Bornstein (eds.), Immigrant Families in Contemporary Society, The Guilford Press, New York.
  21. Βoyd, M. (2002), Educational Attainments of Immigrant Offspring: Success or Segmented Assimilation? International Migration Review, 36 (4): 1037‐1060.
  22. Borjas, G. J. (2006), Making it in America: Social Mobility in the Immigrant Population, NBER Working Paper Series No. W12088, NBER.

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