Hidden cost to children of migrant workers

Children of parents who work abroad are more likely to rebel, drop out of school and abuse substances, study of the social cost of migration by Indians to Saudi Arabia finds. Surya Bhattacharya reports from Kerala

The children of parents who work abroad are more likely to rebel, drop out of school and are prone to substance abuse, according to a study of the social cost of migration by Indians to Saudi Arabia.

While working abroad brings economic advantages for the families who are left behind - including higher standards of living, funds for a better education and food and a better lifestyle - less is known about the social impact of the separation.

With an estimated 5 million Indians living in the Arabian Gulf and sending billions of dollars back to India every year, the report raises question of whether the financial benefits come at a high social cost for their families.

The study of the living and working conditions of low and semi-skilled workers examined the impact on children of a lack of parental guidance and the breakdown of the traditional family network.

"Migration has the potential to result in real changes in the perspective, behaviours and physical, social and economic realities of the lives of children left behind," said the government-commissioned study, carried out by the research unit on international migration at the Centre for Development Studies in Kerala.

Saudi Arabia, was selected by S Irudaya Rajan, the co-author of the study, for its geopolitical importance and the significant size of its Indian migrant population.

In 2011, more than 289,000 Indians went to work in Saudi Arabia, according to the ministry of overseas Indian affairs.

Last November, the World Bank predicted that remittances to India would jump to US$70 billion (Dh257bn) last year, the highest in the world, thanks to the increase in money being sent from the Gulf.

"This much money is coming, at what cost?" asked Mr Rajan, a professor at the Centre for Development Studies in Trivandrum, Kerala.

"Wives don't see their husbands, children don't see their parents for years at a time. This aspect of migration has been neglected by the government and policymakers alike.

"There is so much focus on those who leave, on the migrants. We never talk about those who are left behind, what affect migration has on them," Mr Rajan added.

He said the school dropout rate among Indian families with a parent working abroad was about 50 per cent, compared with between 10 and 20 per cent overall in Kerala. Children studying outside of Kerala were not part of the survey.

"They don't want to go for higher education, they want migrate to the Gulf following the examples of their parents," said Mr Rajan.

The children's increased access to money that comes in from abroad can lead them to spend it on recreational drugs, he said.

"This aspect needs more research," he said.

The children were also the least likely to tell the truth about their daily lives to their parents, the study found, whether financial matters or disagreements with their siblings.

Instead, they focused their time on making occasional requests for gifts from the parents or lightly touching upon topics such as school and health.

"These patterns of communication suggest that our respondents are likely to project their lives as smooth and trouble-free for their migrant parents, perhaps in the effort to diminish parental anxieties over their children," the study said.

Although most children viewed the father's migration as positive, a mother's migration carried negative connotations, especially among girls, who felt more strongly about their parents' migration than boys, the study found.

The common responses to the migration of parents were loneliness, unhappiness and increased maturity.

The data was gathered between 2010 and 2012 from respondents between the ages of 12 and 18 in two areas: 6,575 participants from households, and 1,044 participants from eight boarding schools in four districts.

About 49 per cent of all the household respondents were girls, while 60.2 per cent of those in the boarding-school sample were boys.

The study, part of the Indian Migration Report edited by Mr Rajan, was released yesterday at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, an annual gathering of leaders of the Indian expatriate community in Kochi.

"Gulf issues are of concern and we must hear all the different voices," said Vayalar Ravi, the minister of overseas Indian affairs, whose research unit on international migration commissioned the study.

An estimated 88 per cent of migration from the southern state of Kerala reaches the shores of the GCC countries, leaving behind an estimated 1 million women who live without their husbands.

Even for families where the mother stays behind, the social impact can cause anxieties among the children, said Mr Rajan.

"Women's roles undergo a dramatic change when their husbands leave," he said. "They learn to ride a scooter to take the child to school, they go to the markets, balance the books, run the households, while the husband is absent.

"All of this impacts the life of a child as he or she grows up in an environment where they are only occasionally communicating with one parent."

KV Shamsudheen runs the Pravasi Bandhu Welfare Trust in Dubai, a charity that offers financial counselling to expatriates.

He was at the meeting in Kochi to organise workshops that will educate families on how to adjust to the demands of living away from loved ones.

"The children have certain expectations of their lifestyle from this foreign income and it affects how they behave in society once a parent goes abroad," he said. "They want the latest phones, laptops, music systems, better clothes, more pocket money."

As a result, he said the children were more prone to peer and societal pressure to project a certain image of affluence - and lean toward indolence and delinquency.

"There is also a disconnect between what the children come to expect from their parents," he added.

"They usually fall silent when you ask them if they wonder what sort of sacrifices the parents are making for the children. The children often don't know how to ask."

Kareem Abdullah, from Doha, Qatar, who took part in one of the sessions at the meeting dedicated to discussing issues of non-resident Indians, said that counselling centres should be set up by the government to help families deal with issues of separation.

"We need help to deal with the separation anxiety," he added.


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