Globe, Migrants, Multiculture, United Kingdom

The loneliness and grief of the immigrant

Migration is a social fact and consequently, it affects the whole of society.  It is a process that creates change for those who emigrate, for those who accept immigrants and for the families who stay behind in the native country. Emigration is not just a question of adapting to life in a new country but also of having to deal with feelings of guilt, loneliness, homesickness, frustration and expectation.


Jan Brueghel. Ulises. Creazilla. Public Domain.

Olga Briasco


Billions of people have poured their hope for the future into a new life in another country and continent.  They emigrate following their dreams, in the hope of finding their place within a society different to their own.

The latest figures from the International Organization for Migrants (IOM) show that 281 million international. According to this organisation these figures could double by 2050, creating what is known as the “moving continent.”  However, instead of implementing policies to provide a solution for the structural causes that provoke this situation, more obstacles and barriers are being created.

All human beings have the ability to adapt to change but without even taking the problems caused by the Euro crisis into account, for many people emigrating this is a process that involves such intense levels of stress that they are unable to develop this capacity. These people experience what is known as Ulysses syndrome.  Like the Greek hero, they suffer countless adversities while far away from their loved ones.  They are forced to cope with feelings of failure for not having found work, or for not being able to improve their working conditions.

Other problems that they must also face include a lack of opportunities in the host country and constant worries over food, housing or survival.


Álvaro Zuleta describes Ulysses syndrome as “a state of uncertainty and anxiety which causes the individual to be unable to understand exactly where he or she is.”

In addition to other symptoms, the individual suffers from feelings of loneliness which begin when he or she says goodbye to their loved ones.  For many immigrants, their biggest wish is to be re-united with their family.

It is more common for female immigrants to suffer psychological disturbances as a result of leaving their homes.  It is particularly difficult for those women who have to leave their children behind. Despite this, a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) shows that 180 million emigrants worldwide are women who travel by themselves.

This forced solitude causes great suffering.  According to experts and psychologists, these feelings are mainly experienced at night when memories, emotional needs and fears come to the surface.

This anxiety is felt by those who come from cultures with close family ties and particularly by those who have strong family bonds.  For these individuals it is even more difficult to overcome the lack of emotional support.

The effects

Some feel guilty, not for the pain inflicted on others but because they fear being punished.  These are their feelings of remorse for having left their families behind in their native country.

When these feelings are repressed they manifest themselves as sorrow, crying, irritability, guilt and insomnia.  Similarly, the numerous decisions that an immigrant must take in such a short space of time result in anxiety and stress. This pressure and stress leads to headaches, fatigue, bone and muscle aches and chronic pain.

During this period of adaptation the immigrant may also develop schizophrenia.  According to various studies, social inequalities, racism and discrimination together with the immigrant’s family situation and possible drug consumption can trigger psychotic disorders.

In fact, figures for schizophrenic disorders amongst the immigrant population are higher than those for people who live in the native or host country.

Some of the studies provided by the Chilean Academy of Medicine showed that, in the case of the UK, depression and suicide rates are higher amongst the immigrant population.

Furthermore, schizophrenia is six times more common amongst Afro-Caribbean immigrants than amongst those who live in their native country.  This same study revealed that the smaller the ethnic minority, the greater the risk of developing schizophrenia.

Similarly, within the immigrant population, depression and anxiety disorders are more common amongst Hispanic immigrants in the USA and African immigrants in the UK.

No profile

Doctor Achotegui maintains that there is no set profile for immigrants who suffer this syndrome but there are several factors that can influence its development. In his opinion, the most vulnerable are those who live illegally in cities, because they live in the poorest conditions.

Their illegal situation means that in many cases they are unable to approach the health authorities, either due to a lack of awareness or because they choose not to, which means that the effects of these disorders are even greater.

Personal characteristics also play a role.  Achotegui explains how dependent personalities are those which suffer the most.  At the other end of the scale are those with a high level of intelligence and good social skills who know to surround themselves with other people.


Migration is a social fact and consequently, it affects the whole of society.  It is a process that creates change for those who emigrate, for those who accept immigrants and for the families who stay behind in the native country.

When a parent leaves it affects the growth and development of their children. The majority take on responsibilities inappropriate for their age and go through their main changes in life missing the presence of at least one of their parents.

According to the report “Growing up without parents” , children of emigrants understand that the reasons for their parents’ absence are purely financial yet they develop “a general feeling of sadness, together with the fear that their parents might form another family in their new country.” For these children, emigration is a process of change which involves facing new relationships and experiences, taking on new responsibilities and learning new skills.  Even the return of their parents signifies a reorganisation of their home which is not easy for anyone involved. The study reveals that for many children, the emigration of their mother or father pushes them to study and succeed. This situation arises in children who maintain frequent contact with their parents either by telephone or via the internet.

Communication technology

New technologies help ease the uprooting process as contact takes place almost daily.  Postcards and days waiting for news are now a thing of the past.  Today, e-mail and social networks make communication easier.

Adela Ros, deputy director of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Catalonia, believes that there is still “an out-dated image of an immigrant as someone who is alone and who has lost contact with his roots, an image which is far from today’s reality and any future reality.”

In her opinion, this digital technology should be used as a tool to facilitate integration.

If immigrants do not receive the necessary support to enable their integration, then they will use these new technologies to reassert themselves before an unwelcoming society.

Similarly, today’s technologies show a clearly divided society, “immigrants here, natives there, which reflects how there are no means for immigrants to raise their social standing.” Like Ulysses, every day emigrants face new obstacles which must be overcome in order to one day, reach their own personal Ithaca and achieve their dreams.

(Translated by Rebecca Hayhurst – Email:

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