Findings for left behind children

Around one in seven people are migrants – the majority of which are labour migrants from low- and middle-income countries. Migrants are often separated from their families for long periods of time. In a recent systematic review published in the Lancet, our team of international researchers investigated the effects of parental migration on children
left-behind and adolescents living in low- and middle-income countries.  

We searched the literature for studies looking at the effects of parental migration on nutrition, mental health, unintentional injuries, infectious disease, substance use, unprotected sex, early pregnancy and physical abuse amongst children and adolescents aged 0-19 years, living in low- and middle-income countries. We found 111 relevant studies, including 264, 967 children and adolescents.

Left behind children

91 of these studies were made in China and focused on effects of labour migration within China. Compared to children of non-migrants, left-behind children:

  • had worse mental health, with an increased risk of depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, conduct disorder and substance use.
  • were more likely to be acutely and chronically malnourished compared to children of non-migrant parents.

We didn’t find any differences between left-behind children and children of non-migrants for unintentional injury, abuse, or diarrhoea. No studies looked at other infectious diseases, self-harm, unprotected sex, or early pregnancy.

Though the quality of studies varied, and most were from China, we concluded that left-behind children and adolescents had worse health compared to their peers, especially in terms of mental health and nutrition. We didn’t find any benefits of parental migration for their health, despite the potential economic advantages of having parents working abroad. Our study highlights a gap in global health policy and practice to improve the health of this group of young people.

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