Domestic migrants experience a substantial decline in mental and physical health, despite a significant increase in their incomes at destination, according to a new study from researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and The Ohio State University. The research establishes, for the first time, the impact of internal migration on migrants’ happiness in a developing country. The results were even more pronounced for long-distance migrants, who experienced loss of happiness, calmness and physical well-being on one hand, and lesser asset accumulation and dissatisfaction on the other hand.
“Our study found migrants experience deteriorating physical health coupled with feelings of stress and relative deprivation,” said Katrina Kosec, co-author of the study and senior research fellow at IFPRI. “Despite substantial monetary gains from migration, people may be happier and less mentally distressed by remaining in their home communities,” added Kosec.
The study, “Moving to Despair? Migration and well-being in Pakistan”, co-authored by the International Food Policy Research Institute’s researchers Katrina Kosec and Valerie Mueller (also Assistant Professor, Arizona State University); and Ohio State University’s Joyce Chen, will be published in the upcoming edition of the journal, World Development.
The longitudinal study, conducted over a period of 22 years from 1990 to 2013-14, drew data from a unique panel survey of households in rural Pakistan, to evaluate the impact of internal migration, 92 percent of which was to other rural areas, on migrants’ physical and mental health; and aspirations.
The study found migrants have nearly 35-40 percent higher consumption than non-migrants, yet are less likely to report being happy, calm and/or in excellent health, and more likely to report having been sick recently. Migration over long distances makes migrants even more unhappy or stressed. Long distance migrants (out-of-district) experience 17-20 percentage points decline in feelings of happiness; 16-18 percentage points decline in being calm and 15.5 percentage point not being nervous, when compared to those who did not migrate.
On an average, both short and long-distance migrants are about 12-14 percentage points less likely to be happy or calm; and 8-10 percentage points more likely to feel “down,” than non-migrants.
“Internal migration has the potential to substantially increases incomes, especially for the poor in developing countries, and yet migration rates remain low. Our research shows the emotional consequences from migrating long-distance may be quite high, providing another potential explanation for low spatial mobility within countries,’ said Kosec. Typically, migration is posited as a potential exit strategy for rural landless workers or the family members of agricultural households who remain at subsistence.
Long distance migration deteriorates not only mental health but also takes a toll on their physical well-being. People who migrate out-of-district are 7.5 to 9.3 percentage points less likely to report having excellent health. In fact, they are 7.7 to 12.0 percentage points more likely to report having been sick in the last four weeks, as compared to non-migrants.
When it comes to accumulating assets such as television, motorcycles, washing machine, refrigerator, jewelry, cameras and homes; and wealth, long distance migrants are worse-off than both short-distance and non-migrants. Moving long distances leads to between 37 percent to 43 percent slower growth in asset wealth, which is a considerable decline.
“Cultural norms in Pakistan may also explain the emotional stress migrants face. Migration in Pakistan is tied to major life decisions, such as marriage and starting a new household. Oftentimes, these decisions are made by other members of the family. Assets are hard to acquire without inheritance or support from local informal networks and, with distance, access to those assets may be relinquished and informal networks weakened,” said Mueller, co-author and senior research fellow, IFPRI.
These findings suggest that migrants in other developing countries or low- and middle-income countries likely also assume significant costs to their mental and physical well-being by migrating. The aspects of the cultural environment that may inhibit migrants’ accumulation of assets in Pakistan are common throughout much of the developing world where land remains the most common and most valuable asset for most households but land markets and land rights are ill-functioning, notes Chen.
According to the study, migrants also suffer an emotional setback due to a rising gap between their aspirations, or goals for the future, and their actual accumulation of assets. Individuals who migrate aspire to increase their level of assets between 18 and 23 percent more than do non-migrants, setting a goal that is highly difficult to achieve, and yet they tend to actually achieve lower levels of asset wealth. This may enhance the feelings of stress and unhappiness that they experience.
“Aspirations are increasingly becoming an important area of study given the powerful influence we are learning that they have on everything from the likelihood of making forward-looking investments to the likelihood of engaging in civic organizations and voting,” said Kosec. “Higher aspirations may be a positive development,” she elaborated, “but only if the opportunities that surround a person can reasonably enable him to achieve them.” With a growing gap between one’s achievements and one’s aspirations, unhappiness can result.
To overcome the mental health costs associated with migration, the authors recommend addressing regional inequality by shifting production—rather than workers—across space.
“One option may be to bring jobs closer to rural areas than in distant urban areas. Another option would be to improve transport so that rather than migrate to work, people can commute rather cheaply and remain with their families,” said Mueller.
The findings hold key insights into understanding the impediments to migration that will allow governments to better target policies aimed at balancing urban-rural resource allocation vis-a-vis policies targeting agricultural and manufacturing sectors. They also provide a word of caution for migration-related policies: unless the negative effects of migration on subjective well-being can be effectively addressed, even economically beneficial internal migration may not occur.