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Anthropology: Migration and Its Impact on Psychosocial Well-Being Among Immigrants

Today there are more people on the move than ever before. It is one of the most visible and significant aspects of globalization. The phenomenon of migration has been studied by Anthropologists since the 1950s. Anthropologists focus on how societies perceive immigrants, and how immigrants respond to these perceptions. Anthropology contributes to the study of migration flows through a holistic approach. This enables researchers to link various aspects of the complex process of migration (Lanz, 2018).

Today, we look at immigration as a social issue that many societies attempt to address in various ways. Despite the evidence that migration contributes positively to economic and sustainable development, it is continually seen as problematic. The issue of migration impacts society and social response, but it also affects individuals on a micro-level. Migrants face various challenges when moving from one place to another. The attitudes and level of acceptance of the new host society play a significant role in migration experiences and the mental health of migrants.

Migration – definitions and types

Migration is the movement of people from one place to another. It often involves movement over long distances (such as from one country to another). Therefore, migrants are individuals who change the country of their residence for various purposes. Thus, anyone who is changing their geographic location permanently is considered a migrant.

Immigration is the international movement of people into a foreign country of which they are not natives. This excludes tourists but may include short-term stays. Some countries use different criteria to identify international migrants. Generally, “short-term migrants” are those who have moved to another country for a minimum of three months, but less than one year.  Meanwhile, “long-term migrants” are those who have done so for at least one year.

There are two main types of migration studied by demographers: internal migration and international migration. Internal migration refers to a movement within national borders (between states, cities, provinces, etc). International migration refers to movement beyond national borders (between countries). Therefore, an internal migrant is someone who moves to a different administrative space. While international migrants move to a different country.

Types of international migrants

Migrants have different reasons for relocation and different purposes. There are three groups of migrants: migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.

  • Migrants are people who change their country of residence for general reasons. Migrants move to another country for better job or education opportunities, healthcare needs, and better living circumstances.
  • Refugees move to a different country due to conflicts, war, and oppression in their country of residence. They often relocate unwillingly, therefore they are likely to be undocumented.
  • Asylum seekers claim refugee status and apply for asylum in a different country on the grounds that returning to their own country would lead to prosecution. They seek protection as a refugee but their claim is yet to be assessed.  Therefore, every refugee is at first an asylum seeker, but not every asylum seeker is recognized as a refugee (Habitat for Humanity).

International migrants: statistics

The national statistics on international migrants are hindering full comparability because of the difference of concepts and definitions in different countries. Furthermore, different countries use different data collection methods. Despite this, the World Migration Report (2020) estimates that in the past five decades, the estimated number of international migrants has been increasing. In 2019, the estimated number of migrants in the world was 119 million more than in 1990 and over three times more than in 1970 (International Organization for Migration, 2020).

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), today, there are 84 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. The number of internally displaced people due to violence and conflict reached 48 million. The global refugee population is now 26.6 million.

Statistical Data on international migrants

Many developed countries face a significant inflow of foreigners. In 2019, Europe and Asia each hosted around 82 million and 84 million international migrants, respectively. This is 61% of the total global international migrant stock combined. The top 5 international destinations of international migrants in 2019, were the USA, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the UK (International Organization for Migration, 2020).

Forces that drive human migration: push and pull factors

There are various reasons why people migrate. Push factors are the reasons that drive people away from their country (poverty, fear, disasters, unemployment). Pull factors are forces that draw people to immigrate to a place (safety, opportunity, stability, freedom). Most migrants move to a different country for a better quality of life, availability of services, and better job opportunities.

Asylum seekers and refugees often move unwillingly. They decide to leave their own country out of fear of violence, prosecution, or war, and that in itself is often a very stressful experience. Safety and stability are the pull factors that draw refugees to the host country.

Mental health risk factors in migrants

Factors such as language, communication, and social networks play a significant role in the process of dealing with adversity, settling down, and assimilation. Yet, the experience of those processes contributes significantly to people’s mental health and even overall physical health. Many migrants and refugees experience feelings of anxiety, sadness, hopelessness, difficulty sleeping, fatigue, irritability, anger, and even aches and pains). This is because immigrants experience various types of trauma and stressors before, during, and after immigration. For example:

  • Before – financial issues, poverty, lack of opportunities, violence, political oppression, or disasters
  • During – abandonment and separation, witnessing death, violence, environmental hazards
  • After – stress from adjusting to a new culture and environment, language barriers, limited resources, and support, discrimination, exploitation, fear of deportation.

Racism and discrimination

Immigrants often face racism and discrimination. This can be religious discrimination, racial/ethnic background discrimination, subtle acts of discrimination and marginalization in healthcare, academics, employment, and other socially imposed barriers. This can lead to stress, fear, anxiety, isolation, and loss of sense of safety and identity (Chhabra et al).

Stigma in workplace and education

Adult immigrants often report that they experience discrimination and stigma in the workplace. While the research suggests that children from racial/ethnic minority groups are disproportionately placed in low-ability groups in education. Stigma leads to social isolation and can be a significant risk factor for mental disorders. In addition to this, separation from family and children can be traumatic, and therefore be a negative contributor to mental health in both children and adults (Chhabra et al).

Institutional racism

Institutional racism is common and rarely talked about. Yet, it aggravates other social determinants of mental health, because it has a direct influence on access to quality education, safe housing, employment, healthcare, and so on. Immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities tend to have lower socioeconomic status. Undocumented immigrants have even fewer opportunities for work, due to their immigration status. Low income, education, and occupation decrease life satisfaction and increase stress. This affects both mental and physical health. In addition to this, frequent moves and instability, as well as living in poor neighborhoods, reduce access to adequate health care and quality education (Chhabra et al).

The importance of acculturation among migrants and its impact on psychosocial well-being

Acculturation is a process of assimilation to a different culture, usually the major or dominant one. People adapt to traits from a different culture. However, they are still able to retain their unique markers of language, food, and customs. Sometimes the majority (or the dominant) culture also changes and merges with the minority culture. This is known as assimilation.

According to Berry (1990), acculturation strategies adopted by migrants are the main factors that influence adaptational outcomes. Those outcomes are influenced by “age, gender, personality, cultural distance from the host society, coping strategies employed by the acculturating individuals, experiences of prejudice and discrimination, and social support”. There are also contextual factors like “demography, immigration policy, and ethnic attitudes of the receiving society” (Berry in Phinney et al, 2001).

Successful acculturation means mental and physical well-being, psychological satisfaction, high self-esteem, competent work performance, and good grades at school for children (Liebkind in Phinney et al, 2001). Lack of acculturation can lead to numerous mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and even psychosis. Psychosis (also called Schizophrenia) is characterized by paranoia and hallucinations. Schizophrenia affects about 1 in every 100 people (Rethink Mental Illness, 2020). Disturbingly, immigrants experience psychosis at rates two to five times higher than non-immigrants.

Social Identity theory and links with mental health among migrants

Immigrants in a new country are often viewed in a negative way by the host society. This can threaten immigrants’ self-esteem and ethnic identity. Weak identification with a host culture can lead to early signs of paranoid delusions, low self-esteem, and a lack of sense of control over one’s life. Social Identity is considered one of the most important factors that can significantly impact the psychosocial well-being of migrants. Possessing meaningful and positive social identities has a positive effect on health outcomes.

According to Tajfel & Turner (1986), there is a significant link between group identification and self-concept. Self-identity boosts people’s self-esteem (Phinney et al, 2001). Therefore, we strive to achieve a positive social identity.  Having multiple social identities is linked to a lower risk of depression and better coping in the face of challenges. Therefore, immigrants who integrate with the host culture but also maintain their original culture tend to be the ones who reap the most mental health benefits (McIntyre and Bentall, 2017).

Cultural identity and media narratives

News headlines such as “immigration crisis”, “Romanians bombard website for UK jobs”, “Muslim ban” are particularly harmful to immigrants, as such messages impact immigration attitudes and in turn have a negative impact on mental health, causing feelings of isolation and depression. The topic of people migrating from the Global South to the Global North intensifies nationalist and populist discourses in global politics. Very often, the ways in which the populist attitudes are articulated deem migrants unworthy of formal belonging (Sangaramoorthy and Carney, 2021). Such anti-immigration rhetoric and discrimination, as well as strict anti-immigration laws, have been associated with psychosis. Negative attitudes towards immigrants fuel paranoid delusions among some immigrants, as false beliefs that you are being persecuted by a person or group, are the main symptoms of psychosis (McIntyre and Bentall, 2017).

coloured image of media narratives on immigration

How to tackle the problem?

Rising rates of mental health problems among immigrants can be addressed in various ways. Education, policy, and efforts of governments and citizens to make outsiders feel welcomed and included are especially important in reducing barriers for immigrants. According to research, it is necessary to address the problem of high mental health disorders among migrants and refugees with a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary and inclusive approach. Promoting social integration and inclusion, which can be facilitated by equal access to employment, financial support, social protection, legal and law enforcement agencies, and mental healthcare should be at the core of the response to the problem (World Health Organization, 2021).

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Cultural significance in anthropology

Research on immigration and identity provides social scientists and anthropologists with an understanding of the complexity of the issues surrounding the problem of migration, ethnic identity, and adaptation. The sacrifices that migrants make in leaving their own countries are rarely acknowledged. Research can influence policy by offering public comment on possible ways of tackling the problem of high rates of mental health issues among migrants.

The problem of poor mental health among migrants is especially prominent among those who have been forcefully displaced, due to a higher prevalence of trauma pre-migration, often related to violence. Asylum seekers tend to be at a higher risk of suicide and psychosis.

The available help and support for immigrants differ between host countries. In many Western, more developed societies there are continuous attempts to address the problem of high mental health disorders among immigrants. For example, the government in the UK has introduced advice and guidance for healthcare practitioners that aims to support migrants to access appropriate services for mental health and wellbeing. However, immigrants still tend to face various barriers to mental health services that deny the support and guidance they need (for example, language barriers, lack of familiarization with the system, etc). Many countries, however, host large numbers of immigrants yet do not seem to recognize the problem of poor psychosocial well-being among immigrants and do not attempt to address it.


Chhabra, D., Fortuna, L., Montano, P. Stress & Trauma Toolkit for Treating Undocumented Immigrants in a Changing Political and Social Environment. American Psychiatric Association. Available:

Lanz, T. (2019) Migration. Available: Oxford Bibliographies

International Organization for Migration (IOM) UN Migration (2020) World Migration Report. Available:

McIntyre, J. and Bentall, R. (2017) Immigrants Suffer Higher rates of Psychosis – Here’s How to Start Helping Them. Available:

Phinney, J., S., Horenczyk, G., Liebkind, K., Vedder., P. (2001) Ethnic Identity, Immigration, and Well-Being: An Interactional Perspective. Journal of Social Issues. Vol. 57, No. 3.

Rethink Mental Illness (2020) Schizophrenia Factsheet. Available:

Sangaramoorthy, T., Carney, M., A. (2021) Immigration, Mental Health, and Psychosocial Well-being. Available:

UNHCR The UN Refugee Agency (2021) Refugee Data Finder. UNHCR

World Health Organization (2021) Mental Health and Forced Displacement. Available:

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