SACRU International Insight on Family: reflections on Family Migration

On the occasion of the International Day of Families, celebrated by the United Nations next Sunday, May 15th, experts from the Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities provided an overview with a focus on family migration

On May 15th, 2022, the International Day of Families will be celebrated by the United Nations (UN). The official observance of this festivity started in 1994 after the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 47/237. The formal text resulted from the recommendations implemented by the Economic & Social Council and the Commission for Social Development in the 80s to raise awareness of the problems slowing down the well-being of families. The social, economic, and demographic challenges to families have shifted compared to that period. The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to increasing poverty and inequalities worldwide, endangering the Families’ progress.

Since its foundation, the Strategic Alliance of Catholic Research Universities has proved to have a solid engagement in family issues. The most concrete example is the Alliance Working Group 4 on Family. Last November, the WG4 held a webinar presenting the results of SACRU researchers about the impact that Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns had on families. Considering the Year Amoris Laetitia Family launched by Pope Francis in 2021 and the SACRU mission of global cooperation for the Common Good, this document reflects on one of the trends launched by the United Nations in preparation for the observance of the thirtieth anniversary of the Year: the impact of migration on families. The contributions represent the personal opinions of individual academics and are not intended to be the official position of SACRU and its universities.

Contributions by experts – SACRU Universities

Boston College (United States of America)

Written by Theresa Betancourt, Director of the Research Program on Children and Adversity

Family-centered approaches to supporting war-affected children are imperative in Ukraine

It is presently estimated by UNICEF that 4.3 million children are either internally displaced or have fled across borders as refugees due to the present Ukraine conflict. Forced migration of children and families is not a problem isolated to Ukraine; by a recent 2020 Save the children report, it is estimated that 1 in 6 children globally was living in a conflict zone–that amounts to approximately 452 million children – a 5% increase from 2019 and the highest amount in 20 years.  These same dynamics exist for children and families affected by conflicts in a range of countries including Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, northern Nigeria, Cameroon, Sudan, and the Central African Republic. The list is ever growing and when the view is extended to post-conflict settings that remain fragile, like Sierra Leone and Liberia, the number balloons further.

As we celebrate the International Day of Family, we must recognize the important role that families and caregivers play in helping children to survive and thrive despite the trauma and loss of armed conflict. In Sierra Leone, West Africa, we at the Boston College School of Social Work Research Program on Children and Adversity (BCSSW/RPCA) have been running a 20-year longitudinal and now intergenerational study of war in which we have been tracking the lives of a cohort of 529 girls and boys since the end of the 11-year civil war. They were ages 10-17 years of age, and now as they have grown into adulthood and are starting families of their own. We see, time and time again, that attachment relationships, and the chance to grow in the loving care of healthy, functioning and supportive family operate as major protective factors for war-affected children to thrive over the long term.

According to Populorum Progressio, the progressive development of people is an object to ensure basic freedoms, promote relationships, and establish structures and institutes that allow for development to flourish. In order to support war-affected children, institutes and policies must work to transform the ecosystem to serve all people and to strengthen families. Pope Francis’ vision for our common home and humanity in Laudato Si’ articulates the fundamental relationships for survival and our care for our common home. In this inclusive vision, everything is connected. Social and environmental issues are deeply connected and there is no one single conflict. All is interwoven. As such, building peace in times of war involves the full the engagement of citizens and institutions. Our research indicates that the nature of trauma and loss, age, gender, and individual coping skills all shape the well-being of war-affected children. However, longer term character formation and life outcomes are also very much shaped by what happens for families after the war in terms of access to school, social support, and supporting healthy and restorative relationships in the family and in the broader community.

The 2018 Synod on Youth and Vocational discernment recognizes the importance of accompanying youth on their existential journey to maturity – standing by their side so they can perceive their future.  Our longitudinal study offers a glimpse into the role that the post conflict social context plays to support families to help their youth thrive.  Harkening back to important research conducted by Anna Freud and colleague Dorothy Burlingham in their 1944 book Children and War, underscored how critical parents and other caregivers are as a stabilizing source for children experiencing war related events. What really mattered was having emotionally available caregivers and other attachment figures to help navigate the horrors, disruption, and loss.  Above all, children and families need and deserve protection, an end to attacks on civilians, and a peaceful resolution of conflict. In the acute response and in the post-conflict reconstruction necessary after such conflicts, supports to families must be central to envisioning systems strengthening for mental health services as war-affected nations rebuild– and as host nations welcome families displaced by conflict as refugees.  To strengthen families, we must invest in family based-prevention as well as educational and employment opportunities programs to help families adjust to ways of life in a new country and culture and to help families struggling with displacement and loss to advance themselves.

Three of the Jesuits universal apostolic presences are evident here in the work of SACRU: Walking with the Excluded, Journeying with Youth and Caring for the Common Home.  If we can see former child soldiers in Sierra Leone who go on to become doctors, nurses and business leaders in their community, we can expect similar hopes for children who have suffered terrible exposure to trauma and loss in Ukraine and elsewhere by upholding the right commitments and common effort.

Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Italy)

Written by Camillo Regalia, Director of The Families Studies and Research Center, and Laura Zanfrini, Full Professor for the Scientific-Disciplinary Sector of Sociology of Economic Processes

Psychological and sociological levels of Family migration

Migration is a critical event increasingly challenging a large number of families around the world. As a primary consequence of the migration, the family structure changes, there is a fragmentation of family unity, and the quality of family bonds is put under pressure. Family members have to renegotiate their roles and find new suitable ways to (re)build and maintain their relationships. This is a critical issue affecting both family members living in the receiving society and family members left at home. Families in the new society often feel torn between conflicting values and requests, and they need to cope with these differences, especially at the level of parent-child relationships. The consequences of this process can be seen in the long run and involve at least three generations. However, it would be a limited view not highlighting the positive side of migration for the family. A feeling of collective welfare and belonging can link family members living across national borders, and the family ethos of care and solidarity shows its full potential. The main motivational driver behind moving to another country is often the willingness to improve living conditions for the whole family. As a matter of fact, several families can attain this goal, and migration becomes an excellent opportunity for the family to build and offer a better future for the new generations.

Passing from the psychological to the sociological level, although a family has recently gained an unprecedented role in the field of migration studies and the political debate on integration, the expectations of both the origin countries and the receiving ones continue to be predominantly founded on an atomistic conception. Receiving societies look at immigration mainly as a huge reservoir of adaptable workforce (with a particular emphasis on its role in answering native families’ care needs). In contrast, sending societies consider migrants a source of precious remittances, whose flow is guaranteed precisely by the vast presence of left-behind families. The latter – the huge number of transnational families divided by the migration of one or more of their members – represent a dramatic phenomenon, challenging both the public and the religious institutions because of the social, educative, psychological, and moral costs it can produce. Not to mention the fact that most single migrants are induced to renounce to their family projects or to “sacrifice” themselves for the well-being of left-behind family members. In all these situations, we risk forgetting that each person must always be considered an aim in his/herself –as it is unambiguously stressed by the Catholic Social Thought–and not a means to guarantee family well-being. Finally, obeying family economic well-being, contemporary migrations could generate deep human and social costs, making it particularly manifest the possible tensions among the different components –economic, social, cultural and spiritual– of development [Caritas in Veritate, n. 31]. Finally, both receiving and sending countries, public authorities, and civil society organizations are called to join the effort to envisage new migration policies and practices based on the human dignity principle and the family protection and well-being.

For the receiving societies, the presence of families with a foreign background radically changes the meaning and impact of immigration, transforming an economic issue into a political and identity issue. Family is a particularly challenging question: “imported” models and values make receiving societies consider different conceptions of this fundamental institution, intended as a social construct and a moral order. Migrant households defy the “normal” configuration of family structures and behaviors. They make the family’s patterns and styles of functioning even more heterogeneous through the appearance of disputable practices (such as polygamous cohabitations), past practices (such as arranged marriages), and new family models that take shape in the context of transnational communities and circuits of migrants. Not incidentally, family law issues often rank among the most sensitive arguments in the governance of interethnic coexistence. Finally, it is precisely through families that migration manifests itself as a phenomenon capable of changing the very constitutive features of a society, affecting the population’s somatic, ethnic, and religious characteristics. This is especially true for the nations involved in deep demographic changes, therefore making the incidence of the population with a migratory background increasingly important. Particularly in the urban context, immigration involves evident changes in the urban fabric -for example, through commercial activities managed by immigrants- and how public spaces are used, strengthening the international profile of cities.

Since many migrants are distributed in the lower ladders of the occupational hierarchy, their families are often exposed to the risk of poverty and exclusion. Their offspring suffer from educational and professional underachievement and sometimes are (or feel they are being) discriminated. In a sense, migrants’ children can be viewed as the archetypes of the youthful condition tout court. They can solicit a renewed effort to realize the ambition of building a real universalistic and equalitarian society. Furthermore, since it is the association between the “inequality” suffered by migrant families and their “diversity” from an ethnic, cultural, and religious point of view that largely shapes the perception of immigration, this latter challenge the ability to reconcile the principle of equality and the recognition of diversity. Finally, for our local and national Churches, family migration represents, at the same time, a phenomenon challenging their capacity for hosting and discernment, and an extraordinary occasion to taste their faith and ecclesial experience.

Universitat Ramon Llull (Spain)

Written by Carlos Pérez-Testor and Anna Maria Vilaregut Puigdesens, Blanquerna School of Psychology, Education and Sport Sciences, Couples and Family Research Group (GRPF)

The migration of a family: a psychological perspective

Migratory processes generate displacements of one or more members of a family who are forced to leave their country of origin. The causes of this displacement can be very varied, but we highlight two extreme situations. The former are economic reasons: the family cannot survive in its country with the economic means at its disposal and has no choice but to emigrate. The latter is a political one. The family feels in danger because of its political ideas and has to flee its home, searching for other countries that are more respectful of people who think and defend different ideas. We speak, therefore, of “refugees” or “exiles.”

There are also less traumatic causes that generate protected migration, such as expatriation. It is a process by which a family leaves its country, often temporarily, to study or work for a time away from home, but without legal or economic problems. Any of the three migratory processes we mentioned generate losses, but the first two, unprotected migrations, can produce deep wounds. Achotegui (2009) mentions at least seven possible losses:

  1. Family and friends.
  2. Language.
  3. Culture: customs, religion, values.
  4. The land: landscape, colors, smells, luminosity.
  5. Social status: having permits (visa), work, housing.
  6. Contact with the ethnic group: prejudice, racism, xenophobia.
  7. Risks: dangerous travel, risk of expulsion, vulnerability.

The reaction to loss is a mourning process, which begins before leaving the country of origin with ambivalence and ends up with the integration of the family into the host society. Depending on how the migration is carried out, the mourning can be processed. This situation may generate a more or less normalized migration. However, it can also provoke difficulties such as the Chronic and Multiple Stress Migrant Syndrome, also called Ulysses Syndrome (Achotegui, 2020). If the elaboration of the loss fails, situations of risk will then appear, and the family can either become unorganized or get sick. Pathological defense mechanisms may appear during the whole process, hindering a sufficiently healthy elaboration.

A regular elaboration of grief leads to reconstructing the inner world, enriched by the new experience and by a strengthened basic trust. Then one family can rebuild the links with the external world, partially damaged by the loss. If the grieving process is successfully elaborated, the family will be able to integrate into the host society fully, and the result may lead to good individual and social development.

Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (Chile)

Written by Maria Olaya Grau and Nicolle Alamo, School of Social Work

Migrant families: Maintaining family bonds, and the repercussions of family separation

Recent years have seen an exponential increase in migration to Chile, putting pressure on humanitarianism, solidarity, and human rights commitments. At the same time, many migrant families face extreme precariousness in their search for better and safer lives. On the International Day of Families, it strikes us as quite relevant to address this issue and the transnational situation of Latin American migrant families—which involves, in many cases, the separation and physical distancing of its members. However, the transnational goes beyond the dichotomy of “proximity/geographical distance” (Gonzálvez, 2016) since it also considers the difficulties of maintaining family bonds and the new configurations of family relationships that arise in the context of migration. When family separation occurs, this entails a series of reconfigurations in the care of children who remain in the country of origin, where the extended family plays a significant role not only in care and upbringing but also as potential attachment figures.

In the case of adults who migrate, the repercussions of family separation are often accompanied by traumatic experiences derived from migration and the resettlement stage. This results from socioeconomic factors (Bogic, Njoku, & Priebe, 2015), biographical ruptures—successive losses of the homeland, family, friends, and a way of life—and having to insert themselves into a different community and cultural system. Research shows the severe trauma and impact of separation on the mental health of children and their caregivers, which can continue even years after family reunification. Given this, it is urgent for the government, in collaboration with international organizations and civil society, to take steps and adopt policies that can address the mental health problems caused by family separation in migratory contexts and design culturally sensitive interventions to address them. Above all, it is crucial to prevent new and future mental health problems, which often become more acute or complex when accompanied by discrimination and xenophobia. Such efforts are necessary if we are to realize our long-awaited goal of family wellbeing.

Sophia University (Japan)

Written by Keiko Hirao, Graduate School of Global Environment Studies

Invisible Heart for Invisible Hand

The original concept of sustainable development refers to our obligation when meeting our needs that we should not compromise the ability of future generations. Nevertheless, where does this “future generation” come from? This simple question reveals the blind spot in sustainability discourse that we have ignored the crucial role of the family in society. Despite a popular notion that the family is losing importance in individual lives, and regardless of its definitions, the family still is the only institution generating children. More importantly, parents provide this service to a society free of charge.

Societies cannot be sustainable unless their population is regenerated. This mundane theorem has become a serious social concern in Japan which has been the front runner in the world megatrend of low fertility and aging population. The birthrate in Japan is falling faster than expected, and estimated birth in 2021 dropped to the level projected for 2028. Consequently, about 896 municipalities out of 1,799 will disappear by 2040 due to depopulation. This estimate is based on the data that these cities are losing women of reproductive ages either by low fertility (fewer girls born each year) or by women migrating to larger cities where there are more education and employment opportunities.

There is no panacea to this problem, but the literature suggests that the key is ensuring gender equality and solving the work-and-family conundrum. When we say families are the primary agent for childrearing, we should acknowledge that mothers are bearing the lion’s share of the unpaid work. The economic insecurity of young men has made dual-earner families a norm, yet there is no country where men spend longer hours in domestic work and childcare than women do. For many families in the world, children are economically worthless but emotionally priceless. We then must reexamine the systematic devaluation of the Invisible Heart that provides a future workforce to the market.