Psychology of Migration

Dr. Salih Murat PakerClinical Psychologist – PsychotherapistJanuary 2022

In our age, migration movements have accelerated almost all over the world. Millions of people move every year, sometimes voluntarily for a better life, education, job, but in most cases to escape war, oppression, or severe poverty. Tens of millions of people are predicted to become climate refugees in the coming decades due to problems such as drought, hunger, and flooding, which are expected to increase with the worsening of the climate crisis.

Psychological effects of migration

Migration is a very complex phenomenon. Many factors are at work and talking about migration psychology is only possible in the context of a complex matrix where socio-political and economic factors are also considered. With this in mind, it is possible to talk about three phases as this will facilitate analysis in terms of migration psychology: pre-migration, peri-migration, and post-migration. When examining migration from a psychological point of view and helping people who experience psychological difficulties due to migration, it is necessary to evaluate the negative and positive characteristics of these three phases. These characteristics can also be quite different for each migrant person and group. Only through the combined effect of these many factors can we understand how individuals and groups are affected by migration. Therefore, the first thing we should say on this issue is that the psychological effects of migration are largely individual- or group-specific. Having said this, however, does not mean that there are not some factors that need special attention when talking about migration.

Pre-migration factors

For example, among the factors arising from the pre-migration period, the cause of migration and the extent and depth of the things lost are very important. Forced migration is naturally loaded with more negativities than ‘voluntary’ migration. If you have to flee from a place to save your life, you have to deal with both the trauma of the threats and persecution that led to it, and the burden of leaving your homeland suddenly and completely unprepared. In addition, the size of those who were left behind, lost in this sense, is also very important. The more things that support, protect, and strengthen people are left behind, the more negative the psychological effect of migration will be. What are these? Here, people’s loved ones, their close environment-that is, their network, language, culture, work or school, income, standard of living, familiar village, city, or homeland. The more of these left behind, the more risk factors there are. For the peri-migration phase, it should be considered how safe, dangerous or arduous this journey is.

Post-migration factors

In terms of the post-migration period, the characteristics of the place of migration should be considered. If the place of migration is the less exclusionary and discriminatory, and if it is more suitable to compensate for the losses of the migrants, the negative effects of migration will be less. In any case, it is indispensable that something is lost at one level or another in every case of migration. Something has been left behind and it is necessary to start over. If your losses are great and the new home is not treating you in a friendly, supportive manner, then enough risk factors might come together for the development of various psychological difficulties. The most common psychological difficulties in these situations are depression, anxiety, and relationship problems. No group of people is immune to such problems. Everyone has a different way of presenting and coping with these difficulties. For example, if a new language is required at the place of migration, children are more advantageous than their parents. But on the other hand, the continuity of relationship networks is more important for children. As a result, the sooner and better the economic and cultural integration in the new destination, the less the impact of the psychological risk factors created by migration. For example, if the husband is working and the wife stays home, and on top of that, if she does not have a supportive social environment, then it will be easier for her to develop a depressive mood. One of the most common ways to deal with the difficulties created by migration is ghettoization. People from similar origins form a ghetto against the new external environment that is dangerous or that they deem dangerous. This ghetto can be spatial or a psychological/relational ghetto even if they live in scattered places.

The ghetto is, after all, a kind of solidarity network, it is an effort to compensate for the losses caused by migration. Ghettos can be seen as a functional first step in the process of integration into the new place, if not exaggerated and demarcated too rigidly. People migrate and start living in the ghetto, in which they initially feel more secure. Over time, by trial and error, they may go beyond the borders of the ghetto and gradually integrate. But if the place of migration has a hostile/discriminatory attitude towards the migrants, then self-protection rather than integration comes to the fore for the migrant and ghettoization continues. After a while, ghettoization can create its own dynamic and cause many problems. Chief among these is the fact that migrants (newcomers) and natives (actually “oldcomers”) would not have opportunities to know each other, and they create tensions that can lead to violence, loaded with prejudices. The greatest responsibility for breaking the ghettoization falls on the existing political and social system in the place of migration. The migrants did not come for pleasure; they came leaving many things behind. First of all, by accepting and understanding this, multidimensional help/support mechanisms should be put into action.

Is migration also a trauma?

Migration is a slightly different phenomenon. It doesn’t necessarily have to be traumatic. But it is usually a very difficult process, it may involve multiple losses, it may be due to escaping from traumatic events such as war, the destination may be full of discrimination, etc.

Native – migrant interactions

The migrant, possibly with many traumas and multiple losses, came into a new social majority in a new space as a minority group or even not that, just as a single family or a single person. They left behind their home, village, neighborhood, city, country, loved ones, culture, and language. They already have to deal with colossal loss/grief, traumatic stress, and adjustment issues. Of course, the well-being of the migrant will be affected immensely by how inclusive (friendly) vs. exclusive (hostile) the new social majority and institutions are towards them. In inclusive, supportive environments, migrants transition more easily to a recovery and repair mode, while in social environments with high levels of hostility and discrimination, migrants’ wounds continue to bleed. Because their sense of basic trust cannot be restored.

In social environments that do not treat different cultures in a friendly and egalitarian manner, where authoritarian, exclusionary, xenophobic, nationalistic, and racist features predominate, migrants have a few options. If they are few, if they are weak, they will be atomized. Rapid abandonment of their own culture, hatred of their own identity, and forced assimilation will come to the fore. If they are a minority large enough to form a ghetto, then they may evolve introverted, trying to cling to their old identity even more radically, or rather reconstructing that old identity even more radically. In this case, a very reactionary identity construction could be possible.

The most reasonable and least damaging solution to this immigration problem for both immigrants and locals is integration and hybridization on the basis of equality. On the one hand, cultural differences will be recognized, respected and their rights will be granted. On the other hand, instead of preserving these differences as frozen fixations, the ways for everyone to learn and acquire something from the other culture, in other words, cultural hybridization will be kept wide open. In order for this to be done reasonably, gradual/digestible migration should be preferred over sudden/large migration waves, cultural integration programs should be developed for both immigrants and locals, and discrimination should be actively combated.

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