Myth: physical proximity is crucial for a family

Myth busters


Dutch migration laws in the nineteen-eighties included a rule that family members should not be separated for longer than two years. After such a period, the family connection was broken and migrants lost the right to family reunification. “This undoubtedly played a role in the reduction of the number of residence permits in those days,” says Karlijn Haagsman, postdoc at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, “but it is nevertheless remarkable that something like that was included in a law. It insinuates something like: good parents wouldn't leave their children behind as long as that, they would bring them along straight away. The European Court brushed the regulation aside and rapped the Netherlands on the knuckles. The regulation was abolished in 2006.”

For years, Haagsman - first as a PhD graduate, now as a postdoc – has worked on a project in which West African migrants in the Netherlands have their physical and mental health checked as well as their labour market position. It is a mixed group, says Haagsman. “They are not just refugees but also expats, such as Shell employees, to mention but a few.”

What is remarkable is that in West Africa living separately from one’s family is accepted more than it is in Europe. “Here we think it is terrible if children and parents are separated from each other for a long time. In West Africa, it is normal that children live with their grandmother for a while in a different region, sometimes to help out with housekeeping. Or with an aunt because she is stricter in parenting, or because both parents work a lot.”

At first, it seems like the mental health of parents who live in the Netherlands, while their children are still in their country of origin, is less good, says Haagsman. “But if you take a closer look, you see that this is not because of the separation but because of other things. A low income, no or poorly paid work, and no residence permit are the real reasons. This means that they can't have their children come to visit every now and again, that they can't send home much money, can't phone very often. Having no official documents also means that they can't visit their children, because then they can't get back into the Netherlands.”

The same story applies to the children who have stayed behind: their psychological health leaves a lot to be desired but that is not necessarily because of the separation. “It makes a lot of difference whether it is the father or the mother who has gone abroad. If fathers leave, the child often remains under mother's guidance. When mothers leave, care is often handed over to someone else. This can lead to unstable situations. This new carer is at any rate important for the well-being of the child, and should at least have a good relationship with the mother who is away, because that is the person who must uphold contact.”

Flashing” or allowing the telephone to ring a number of times can be enough, says Haagsman. “In doing so, you show that you are thinking of each other. Parenting tasks can also be fulfilled properly from a distance. You can use Skype to check whether homework has been done. Some parents also use apps that allow them to check where their child is at any given time.”

Myth busters is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths on complex topics

Myth: physical proximity is crucial for a family
Karlijn Haagsman, postdoc at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Joey Roberts
Categories: Science
Tags: myth

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