“This study explores the effect of human rights violations in countries of origin on migrants' mental health, using archival data on human rights violations from 1970-2011, merged to a representative probability sample of 2,412 adults living in a large Canadian metropolitan area. The context of exit is defined at the country level, as opposed to self-reported individual experiences of trauma. While most studies start from a question about direct exposure to human rights violations, they may miss the effect of the national-level social context - threat, instability, disruption of lives, and uncertainty - on mental health. Findings indicate that high levels of human rights violations in countries of origin have long-term effects on migrants’ mental health. The impact of human rights violations is substantially explained by the combined effect of stressors both before and after migration, suggesting a cumulative process of stress proliferation following this context of exit.”
Discussion & Conclusion
“This study used individual and country data to examine the effect of human rights violations in countries of origin at the time of exit on migrants' mental health. Findings indicate that human rights violations in countries of origin have a significant effect on migrants’ mental health, even after controlling for closely related country-level forms of stress. In general, migrants from countries with moderate-to-high levels of human rights violations experience more psychological distress than migrants from countries with low levels of human rights violations. Those from countries with high levels of human rights violations also experience more psychological distress than the native-born.
This finding is not restricted to the experiences of refugees, it is not a short-term adjustment issue, and it is not based on the self-reports of individuals about the direct experience of human rights violations. Instead, we emphasize the important possibility that the entire national-level climate accompanying human rights violations has a long-term effect even among those not directly exposed, because the context of exit socializes constant vigilance in the face of threat, insecurity, and uncertainty.
Our analysis indicates that the effect of human rights violations on migrants’ mental health is substantially explained by the effect of pre- and post-migration stressors. While the effect of moderate level of human rights violations is explained by stressful life events experienced before migration, the effect of high levels of human rights violations is explained more by post-migration stress experiences. Discrimination, acculturative stress, and economic hardship are post-migration stressors that help explain the higher levels of psychological distress in migrants from countries with high levels of human rights violations. Because individual sociodemographic characteristics including race/ethnicity and refugee status are controlled and have little influence on the effect of human rights violations net of other controls, this suggests that migrating from a high human rights violations context leads to more stress exposures after migration.
Broadly, results are consistent with the concept of stress proliferation (Pearlin, 1989, 1999) and the argument that contexts of exit may lead to more stress before and after migration (Torres & Wallace, 2013; Vega & Rumbaut, 1991). They also add to those of Steel et al. (2009) by showing the effects of human rights violations contexts on the mental health of refugee and non-refugee migrants, and by highlighting the explanatory role of stress before and after migration.
Some potential limitations, however, must be considered in interpreting the results. First, in our analysis, we treated stressors over time additively, but it is also possible that earlier stress may either sensitize or de-sensitize migrants to the effects of later stress. We tested this possibility in analyses not shown, by testing interactions between pre-migration stress and post-migration stress. We found in these analyses that greater exposure to pre-migration stress does not elevate the effect of post-migration stress on distress, with the one exception of acculturative stress. The coefficient for the interaction between pre-migration stress and acculturative stress was positive and statistically significant (1.822, p = 0.001). This interaction, however, changed little the results we report or the mediating role of stressors overall. Second, the list of items used to measure stressful life events that occurred before migration do not capture all traumatic events experienced under situations of severe and systematic human rights violations. A special emphasis in future research should be placed on the effect of human rights violations at both the individual-level and country-level. Third, mental health was measured only at the time of the interview. Obviously, longitudinal data would allow tracking of real-time changes after arrival. Fourth, the effects reported in this study were examined in a sample of English-speaking adults living in Toronto, Canada, which could reduce the generalizability of the findings. These effects, and differences in exposure to stress may be smaller given that non-English speaking migrants were not included in the sample. However, we note that the average percent of residents speaking English as one of their daily languages is 96% in Toronto Census tracts in 2006, and that in 85% of the tracts with a high number of migrants, at least 90% speak English (Census, 2006) Moreover, we note that Canada has a “points system” for entry that weights language skills, and that all primary applicants must pass English tests. This is not true of sponsored spouses and refugees, but we sampled English-speakers in households when a targeted respondent did not speak English. The data are also weighted by migrant status and other socio-demographic variables, meaning that the sample was fairly representative of the population living in the census tracts that were selected for the survey (O’Campo et al., 2015). Relatedly and fifth, migrants in Canada are quite a heterogeneous group and there is of course a risk that not all this heterogeneity has been captured by the controls.
Despite these, this study advances our understanding of the impact of human rights violations in countries of origin on migrants' mental health by considering how human rights violations as a macro-level form of stress at the country level affect migrants’ mental health, and potentially in the long-term. Results clearly show that a context of exit defined by high levels of human rights violations is associated with more distress after migration than a context of exit defined by low levels of human rights violations. An overly specific or insufficient measure of the challenges presented by stress after migration will misrepresent the life course consequences of migration from human rights violations conditions and its effect on long-term mental health for migrants. The quite generalized deployment of stressors used here allowed the explanation of differences in distress between and across a diverse set of migrant groups from a very large and diverse set of countries of origin.
This study advances also our understanding of how social contexts at exit influence migrants’ mental health. Guided by the stress proliferation argument, this study showed that social contexts at exit may have an effect on long-term migrant mental health. One pathway for this effect is through the effects of the cumulation of stress both over time and across social contexts.”
Research at a Glance is designed to inform the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) community and other interested parties about recently published, policy-relevant research from government, academic and NGO sources. The views expressed in the documents described do not necessarily reflect those of IRCC.