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Emigration: The profound psychological pain of those left behind

Emigration: The profound psychological pain of those left behind
Emigration can have a profound impact on family relationships. (Photo: Amy Humphries / Unsplash)

Almost all of us are affected or know someone who has been affected by the trend of young South Africans emigrating to pursue opportunities in different parts of the world. 

Previously, reliable and up-to-date emigration data for South Africa was not readily available. There is no official agency that collects emigration data, so verification on South African emigration statistics is problematic. 

However, some other emigration statistics are becoming available from three key sources: Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the United Nations International Migrant Stock database, and the National Statistics Offices (NSOs) of foreign nations.

For example, in 2017, Professor David Kaplan and Thomas Höppli from the University of Cape Town’s School of Economics conducted a private study using NSO data and found that the number of South Africans residing in 31 other countries had increased from 435,000 in 2000 to 820,000 in 2017.

Statistics SA also recently published the first Migration Profile Report for South Africa: A Country Profile 2023, on which Daily Maverick’s Georgina Crouth reported, saying that South Africa “has lost almost a million citizens to emigration since 2000. The data also suggests claims about a ‘brain regain’ in SA are overly optimistic.”

Read in Daily Maverick: Gone for good — dwindling number of South African emigrants return

Emigration destinations

Migration stocks are defined as the total number of persons living in a country at a particular point in time who were born in another country. The graph below depicts the migrant stocks in the top 10 destinations where South African expats reside.

Europe is the most appealing region for residence, attracting 39.3% of migrants (this includes the UK). North America’s share is at 18.1%; Oceania 29.9%; Asia 2.2%, and Latin America and the Caribbean 0.3%.

Read in Daily Maverick: Thousands of South Africans have sought asylum abroad, says Stats SA migration report

But what about those left behind?

Regardless, statistics rarely capture the whole story, and beyond the analysis of the numbers lies the profound impact on family relationships. Equally significant as the statistics are the shifts in social dynamics within families. 

Emigration is often depicted as a solitary journey – an individual’s pursuit of new horizons and opportunities in a distant country. However, the reality is far more intricate, with the effects of emigration rippling through the lives of not just the emigrant but also those left behind, particularly their closest family members.

Consider that for every emigrant who leaves, a void is created in the lives of their parents, siblings and beyond. It’s a ripple effect that multiplies, potentially doubling or even tripling the number of people affected when extended family members like cousins, uncles and aunts are included. The 914,901 people who emigrated from South Africa by 2020 thus became 2 or 3 million or even more people being affected by emigration, in a country where family ties are deeply cherished.

For parents, it can evoke feelings of pride, mixed with a profound ache because of their absence. Siblings, who may have shared a lifetime of memories and dreams, suddenly find themselves navigating life’s milestones without their closest confidants. The emotional attachments nearest to the emigrant are the most affected, but in the end, every affected relationship alters the family system in a different way, contributing to the complexity of the adjustment process. 

The true impact of emigration on those remaining 

The impact of emigration is often quantified through economic loss and skill shortages in critical sectors such as health and technology. However, this perspective overlooks the profound social and psychological repercussions for those who stay behind, particularly in South Africa, where the phenomenon has reshaped the fabric of many families.

There has been limited exploration of the social and psychological impact of emigration on those remaining behind in South Africa. Therefore, the true cost of emigration must account for these intricate, often hidden effects on the psychological welfare and quality of life for the seniors left to face the twilight years with a fragmented support system.

Read in Daily Maverick: The profound challenges of emigration: Insights from South African families

As adult children emigrate, families become transnational families and are thus not defined by geographical boundaries or by limited time frames.

A 2002 study by Helen B Miltiades sheds light on the profound impact of an adult child’s emigration on family dynamics and individual wellbeing. The study found that the absence of an emigrant child can lead to negative psychological effects on parents, who often suppress their desire for their child’s return in favour of the perceived prosperity abroad.

As individuals age, their reliance on family for care and companionship increases. Next to the support received from the spouse, the support of children has the most influence on the general wellbeing of the aged. Studies reveal the emotional and psychological vulnerability of those left behind intensifies, leading to a sense of loss, helplessness, loneliness, depression and anxiety and a diminished quality of life.

Recognising these aspects is crucial to understanding the full spectrum of emigration’s impact, advocating for a more holistic view that includes the effect on those remaining in South Africa.

Challenges for the ageing parents in SA

This author’s ongoing research shows that each parent’s emigration journey is unique, with its own psychosocial challenges and emotions. The adult children’s decision to emigrate left the South African parents interviewed with mixed emotions. They experienced feelings of ambiguity, insecurity and fear, although they were relieved that their grandchildren would be raised in a more stable and secure country, with better educational prospects. The absence of their grandchildren complicates the situation, depriving grandparents of the joys of intergenerational relationships.

Further, the destination country plays an important role in the parents’ experience of their adult child(ren)’s emigration. Communication that was once effortless now requires deliberate effort, bridging time zones and cultural divides. 

The time zone difference between the emigrant’s new location and their home country can make it challenging to find convenient times for communication. For example, the time difference between South Africa and Australia ranges from six to eight hours ahead of South Africa, depending on the specific locations and daylight saving time. This makes it difficult to coordinate phone calls or video chats and can lead to less frequent communication and feelings of being disconnected.

The distance between the emigrant’s new home and their home country can also hinder regular visits to parents and family members. Long flights and the associated costs can act as barriers to frequent visits. The travel time for a flight from South Africa to Australia, ranges from 11 to 14 hours. In the case of Canada the flight duration is 17 hours. 

Another challenge emerges as a visa is required for SA passport holders to travel to most countries. Visits abroad require preparation, planning and organisation well in advance of the travel date. In addition to meeting all the health requirements, it is advised that health insurance is taken out for the full period of the intended visit to prove that one will be able to cover any medical costs which might arise.

Due to the very expensive and long international flights, emigrants may miss out on important family events and milestones, and their parents may feel a sense of loneliness or abandonment.

While remittances from emigrant children can help ease financial burdens, they cannot replace the emotional connection and support that parents crave. The longing for familial closeness persists, taking a toll on the mental and emotional state of the elderly parents.

Beyond numbers

The stark statistics of 1 million individuals already having left South Africa accentuate the magnitude of this phenomenon. Behind each data point lies a human story – families struggling with the redefinition of their identities and of relationships strained by the vast distances that separate them. 

Emigration fundamentally alters the social and emotional dynamics within families, leaving a lasting imprint on the psychological wellbeing of all. While South African parents are comforted by the thought of new opportunities awaiting their children, they are also burdened by the inevitable change in the familial order, while facing their elderly years with diminished familial support. 

Stephen Miller aptly stated: “Immigration is an emotional issue. And it ought to be an emotional issue because it affects people’s lives.” DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jason du toit says:

    i’m sure this is a repost from a little while ago.

  • Joe Soap says:

    With two siblings and their families having emigrated in different directions, one has high degrees of anger toward our maladministration – one aspect not explored above are the reasons for emigration besides the typical better job prospects. The story above focusses a bit on emigrants leaving parents behind. Emigration can also be a sacrifice to ensure offspring have better opportunities – often aligned to race. Others emigrate to escape crime, after having been assaulted in one’s home with perpetrators not caught, let alone prosecuted. These aspects hide the real loss and tragedy and failure of those in control.

  • Brian Cotter says:

    Remember the mass immigration to RSA of young white and professionally qualified people in the 60’s and 70’s. This included many qualified engineers. There was a gold mine or new shaft every year, new platinum mine, Iscor with Grootegeluk and Sishen, Eskom Power Stations every 4 years, and other minerals plus large infrastructure projects of water and abattoirs. When there is work there is mass immigration of qualified people and conversely no work there is emigration. Emigration is colour blind now, the writing is on the wall and qualified youngsters of all races are heading out.

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Immigration has been a constant in every country for centuries. Throughout the years, colonial expansion had countless people leave their homes to live permanently in distant countries and it was not easy to return home on sailing ships, whereas today, several hours watching movies on a plane and you are where you want to be. People have and will move for a multitude of reasons and nothing is going to stop this.
    For South Africa, the political changes and consequences have spawned net outflows and the statistics will always be a guess.
    How do the stats cope with a person who leaves on a SA passport and arrives in another country on a different passport? The receiving country will record them as being from the country of the arrival passport.
    What about someone who leaves SA on holiday and never returns?
    The world is now wide open to travel, adventure, new experiences and multiple opportunities. Going out and exploring the world and deciding where you would like to spend your life, is the new way, as skills shortages invite immigration and make it attractive to move.
    If South Africa continues to go backwards, it becomes a prime reason for more people to look elsewhere for their futures.

  • Michael Forsyth says:

    We only have one child (our younger daughter having died in 2002), she lives in Seattle with her husband and two daughters. We chat weekly and meet in December either in South Africa or the USA. We don’t get to see birthdays, grandparents days, or reading stories in person. Other special days like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are marked with special calls and possibly little gifts. BUT, thank goodness for video calls and Amazon quickly delivering gifts. It is not the same though but radically different to what our ancestors experienced in the past. Difficult Transatlantic phone calls, all correspondence via the postal service which arrived weeks after the events.

    • Geoff Coles says:

      It’s horrible wh3n yo u hav3 family almost forced overseas

    • Ryckard Blake says:

      It is today VERY much easier for the agtergeblewenes than it used to be 20, never mind 50 years ago. When I left SA in 1961 for an internship and work experience in Europe, I remember the frustration of feeding half-crowns into a public phone booth for a 3 minute crackly contact with my parents, on my first (October) birthday overseas. That was the only phone call in 5 years. Mother spent an arm and a leg to bring me home for a short visit after 3 years, but they could never in the sixties afford to travel to visit me.
      Now we have the Internet, Cellphones and Whatsapp, and comparatively cheap flying for the emigrés to visit us. We, as left-behind parents, are far, far better off, than were previous generations.
      All five of our adult children have now left their Transvaal birthplaces, and have found better lives in England, France, Burma and the Cape. But we have almost daily electronic contact with all of them, they all visit at least once or twice a year, and will I’m sure hasten to be with us should serious needs arise.
      And emotionally, we are SOOO happy that they have had the courage to make their escapes from the land of their birth before the FINAL descent into the looming hell-hole that faces us oldies.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    At this rate it means nearly 100 000 taxpayers or potential taxpayers leaving the country for greener pastures every year!

  • Peter Holmes says:

    We have three adult children (all UCT educated) who have built successful lives in the UK. We have five grandchildren. Our relationship (bond) is as strong as if they were here, minus the worry of no career prospects for the grandchildren (white) as the exit their teens. The only psychological impact on us is the emotion of pride and satisfaction in what our youngters have achieved in a country which recognises their worth and their talents. No pining, just contentment.

  • Johan Buys says:

    You go through stages:

    SAD just before and when they leave.

    MAD just after they left, that they had to.

    GLAD later on, that they did leave.

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