Migrants, Multiculture

UK immigrants: hindered by pain and emotional difficulties

Many people fleeing hardships in their countries of origin, pack up, and head to Britain in search of a better life. But unexpected economic struggles, discrimination and feelings of alienation upon their arrival often lead to huge amounts of disappointment and psychological distress.


  Michelle Gooden-Jones


When Afghan-born refugee, Aslem, first arrived in England, she was faced with a number of cultural shocks and instinctually recalls noticing that most of the people she met were not helpful.

She found it difficult to find an interpreter and felt as though the majority of people she encountered did not want her to be here.

She could not understand the differences in money, currency or train systems and knew very little English, causing her to feel lost in a constant state of confusion. In 2012, a study carried out by researchers at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that migrant workers who struggled with language barriers were more likely to be unaware of their rights and faced frequent exploitation by their employers.

More than two thirds of the migrants surveyed complained of living in fear, felt psychologically harmed, worked more than 50 hours per week, and were being paid below the minimum wage.

Adriana, a woman from Romania, claims that while working in the UK she “felt like the sky was falling”.

But needing the money and having no other choice, she continued to work under harsh conditions, causing her to constantly feel “tense and sad”.

Kunjamon Lochen and his family arrived in the UK from India during the early 2000’s. They purchased a house and settled down into what they thought would be a peaceful life, but soon began to experience misery.

They were racially abused, bricks were thrown at their house, their car was repeatedly scratched and pellets were fired through their front windows.

They were the only non-white family on their street and the only ones being targeted. For the next five years, the family lived in fear with Kunjamon’s father being forced to take tablets at night because he was unable to sleep.

Leaving everything behind

Although many migrants have visions of leaving problems behind in search of a better life in the UK, many find that issues caused by living in a foreign country can have devastating effects on their emotional health.

The simple task of packing up, deciding what take or what to leave behind and making that bewildering journey abroad is often where these negative feelings begin.

Not only are migrants forced to leave behind items of sentimental value, but in some cases they are also forced to leave behind family, and most will certainly leave behind close friends.

Coping with the loss of family, friends, personal items and in many cases, a whole culture, can be incredibly difficult for a migrant. Suddenly casting these things off causes empty feelings of longing that are tough to relieve.

Arriving in a new country with a completely different culture can not only cause migrants to feel as though they stand out in crowds because of the way they dress, but not having access to appropriate places of worship, losing familiar foods and working during important holidays or festivals can cause them significant amounts of stress.

Having to stop traditions that are considered illegal or taboo in the UK, such as child circumcision, growing tobacco, slaughtering animals in their back garden, or having more than one spouse can bring about high levels of confusion.

With many migrants’ children being able to pick up English faster than their parents, they are often called upon to be interpreters in numerous situations.

This is not only wearing for a young person, but also confuses roles between parent and child, resulting in further mental anguish.

Jobs and social exclusion

Finding work is an incredibly difficult prospect for migrants to the UK. There are often language barriers and qualifications earned in foreign countries may not be transferable in Britain. This means that migrants with high-level qualifications and years of experience at management and professional levels in their countries of origin can suddenly find themselves working as cleaners or cab drivers in order to support their families.

According to Migration Watch UK, 630,000 of the Eastern European migrants currently working in the Britain are in roles defined as low skilled by the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee. This means that three in four migrants from Eastern European countries are working in cheap labour jobs that include roles such as cleaning, cab driving and fruit picking.

Not only do these low skilled jobs result in a loss of prestige for migrants, but they also contribute to their social isolation.

Many people refuse to befriend cleaners and fruit pickers, leading to feelings of exclusion and loneliness, which can drastically reduce migrants’ self-esteem and their chances to integrate into British society.

Since many migrant workers have difficulties speaking and understanding English, they are unaware of their rights, often live in a climate of fear and are subjected to bullying and threats made by their employers. Many complain of depression and some have even been driven to self-harm.

Discrimination and racism

NatCen’s British Social Attitude Survey has displayed pronounced levels of discriminatory views held by British people against migrants. Findings show that nearly a quarter of British people believe that the main reason for migrants coming to the UK is simply to claim benefits.

95% told the survey that in order to be ‘truly British’ you had to speak English, while 74% said that it was important to have been born in Britain, and almost 43 % revealed their beliefs that migrants to the UK increased crime rates.

The survey showed that there has also been a considerable drop in the number of British people who believe that migrants should have the same legal rights as British citizens, which dropped from 40% in 2003 to 27% in 2014.

In 2015, a YoungGov poll found that only 10 % of British citizens think that immigration in the past 10 years has been good for Britain, while 71 % believe it has been harmful and negatively impacted on overcrowded schools and an exhausted NHS.

For migrants, feelings of exclusion are escalated by the types of discrimination they face by people in the UK. Over the past decade, Islamophobia has increased in popularity within Britain – with more people becoming vocal in their rejection and criticism of Islam and its values.

During October 2015, a group of men waved alcoholic drinks in a Muslim woman’s face on a train, asking if she wanted some.

They then began to chant, “we are racist and we love it”, before proceeding to ask the woman if she ate bacon or had a bomb under her scarf.  The men then poured alcohol on her coat, while other passengers merely watched or completely ignored the incident.

Issues like these not only cause stress for Muslim migrants to the UK, but also increase their levels of worry and fear.

Ulysses syndrome

It is clear that the lives and livelihoods of migrants in the UK are threatened by various emotional health problems that arise from the migratory and adaptation process.

Combinations of loneliness, culture shock, discrimination, racism, leaving loved ones behind and harsh economic realities faced after having arrived in the UK lead to experiences of extreme hardship and trauma, which can form the basis of the Ulysses syndrome, a mental illness specific to migrants with multiple chronic stressors.

Stressors can torment migrants for months or even years, causing them to feel as though they are unable to change their situation, which leads to a sense of defencelessness with the absence of any support. These feelings ignite symptoms of depression, sadness, crying, anxiety, tension, insomnia, irritability, confusion, disorientation, depersonalisation and derealisation – which all become additional handicaps that hinder the migrant’s attempt to survive in Britain.

(Photos: Pixabay)


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