Left behind: Counting the cost of migration

New research highlights emotional suffering of Diaspora families

Women and children who stay at home while husbands and fathers leave to seek work in the diaspora pay a high price as they disproportionately shoulder the emotional losses that are part of the high and often hidden costs of migration. These include emotional stress and pain and suffering that members of migrant families experience.

These largely intangible costs defy existing valuation efforts, even as they inflict damage on personal wellbeing and family life. Women are often the worst affected by these dynamics. This is illustrated through the narratives of two women who remained in Zimbabwe to take care of their children while their spouses relocated to South Africa to seek employment.

Academic writing and policy debates about the economic role of international migration in the development of global Southern economies often argue that, through financial remittances, international migrants can boost economic growth in sending countries and ignore the costs to their families.

Overwhelming emphasis is placed on the gains from migration including remittances and their investment potential in the national economy at the expense of the financial, social and personal costs associated with the migrant way of life. If costs are mentioned in the current debates about the migration-development nexus at all, they are merely viewed as a loss to the national economy.

Going Down South

Migration to South Africa, the main destination for migrants from other Southern African countries, remains a male-led and male-dominated phenomenon, although more women are now migrating in their own right.

A significant number of migrants use undesignated ports of entry to ‘border-jump’ into South African territory and then seek asylum as a way to legalise residence. Most asylum-seeker applications are not resolved for several years during which time the applicants are placed on a renewable asylum-seeking permit. This permit regularises their residence, albeit for a short period, but they may not return home legally.

As in other migration contexts, researchers observe that South Africa’s migration policy is oriented toward restriction, stymies spousal migration and sustains transnational separations.

Case Studies

Two case studies of non-migrant women, Chipo (38) and Nyasha (37), who remained in Zimbabwe while their spouses migrated to South Africa to seek employment, are illuminating in this regard.

Chipo is a rural resident and subsistence farmer in the Midlands Province and a mother of three. Majuru (48), her teenage boyfriend and later husband and father of her children, border-jumped into South Africa in 2005.

This is her story: ‘Since my husband and I got married, I did not long for his company as much as I do now… We were living together as a family; we used to go to church together … as a family.

‘Now that Mr Majuru has not visited us in the past two years, my desire is becoming more and more overwhelming… If he fails to visit this December, I will only farm this season only, then I will leave this home with my children.’ The separation is contrary to Chipo’s expectations of family life and has become a source of multiple apprehensions, including marital infidelity. Consider how she pines: ‘In the past, however little he gets in South Africa, he still managed to share with us and he would come home regularly. But now he spends this long [more than two years] before he visits again… I now suspect he has another woman there.’

The minimal involvement Chipo’s husband has had in the family since his departure, including his infrequent visits, living incommunicado and poor remitting behaviour, have stirred up apprehensions. She interprets her husband’s marginal parental participation as a sign of a sour marital relationship and that her husband has turned his back on the family, something that gives rise to severe distress.

Chipo began to question her husband’s private life in Johannesburg. She said that she wants to find out if he is attending church regularly. Her intention is to gauge her husband’s inclination towards infidelity by speculating on his devotion to God (and therefore to her and the family). She also said she was considering going to South Africa to see for herself what her husband is doing. There was an unmistakable tone of agony in Chipo’s voice as she described her multiple anxieties, including the possibility that Majuru had another family in Johannesburg and the possibility of him contracting HIV and other infections.


Nyasha, a 37-year-old mother of three and a resident of a peri-urban settlement in Harare, Zimbabwe, shared similar experiences of living apart from her husband Siwela (38). He relocated to South Africa to seek political and economic refuge in 2005, leaving her with full parental responsibility at home.

When responding to the question on how she copes with living apart from her husband, she became very emotional. She recounted how her husband betrayed her: ‘My husband was seeing another woman in South Africa… He was staying with this woman… That’s where we started to disagree about living separately.’ She further stated: ‘I was hurt. After going through this ordeal, it is hard for me to understand that he actually did not have money to send home… it really hurt me and my blood pressure went up. I feel the pain even now.’ Nyasha’s observations are far from speculation. During a separate interview in Johannesburg, Siwela conceded that he broke his marriage vows. He cited a lack of material resources and social support structures as factors that led him to compromise on fidelity. From his point of view, moving in with another woman made the difference between returning to Zimbabwe and staying on in Johannesburg.

What is striking about the stories shared by these two women is that transnational separations give rise to undesirable relational circumstances which threaten and damage the very core of the family. Absentee men’s marginal involvement in the family is influenced by structural limitations associated with migration management and their gender-normative masculinities. Their lack of involvement may threaten and damage the ideological infrastructure of the family with great emotional and even physical strain for women.


The assumption that migrants transmit wealth smoothly from receiving countries to sending countries is untenable. In order to debunk this assumption further, it is appropriate to consider why the migration-related vulnerabilities of migrants are largely overlooked in public policy debates. According to Faist (2009), academic and policy about migration erroneously treat international migrants as a homogenous group of well-to-do economic agents. Furthermore, public policy discourses on the migration-development nexus almost exclusively draw on inferences on South-North migration, which may vary markedly from South-South migration in terms of returns.

This discussion indicates that embarking on migration is more costly for some groups of South-South migrants, especially low- or unskilled immigrants with perhaps only a few years of education and training. Another reason why family members’ migration-related vulnerabilities are not counted as costs is that migrant families, especially women, tend to internalise the damage from migration. Therefore, it is not surprising that governments seek to cash in on remittances while casting a blind eye to the damage and loss separated families must contend with. However, one might argue that, in a context of male-dominated mobility, the damage which families experience as a result of migration constitutes a driver in gender inequalities. As migrant families disintegrate and women are made to endure more and more distress, economic livelihoods (including subsistence from farm activities which sustain families) are likely to be disrupted as well. For example, due to severe distress, Chipo has found her marriage home unbearable and considers abandoning the farm, taking the children with her as she searches for a new home. Should Chipo do so, she might relieve her suffering but she would continue to carry the burden of full parental responsibility over her children. – Adapted from an article in BUPA. Admire Chereni is a Fellow at the Centre for Anthropological Research at the University of Johannesburg.

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Post published in: Environment

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