Consequences of Refugees’ Prolonged Family Separation

Lukuaika: 4 min.

Authors: Johanna Hiitola, Elina Jokinen, Edris Bayan Shenwarai, Ahmed Zaidan, Ellen Nieminen

Flight from one’s home, long journeys and the possible deportations or return migration require constant adaptation into new environments. Though change is part of everyone’s life, for a refugee it is particularly intense and in many cases contains traumatic experiences. In this text we focus on situations where the change occurs away from one’s family and as a result, family members can grow apart.

This text is based on 40 interviews where we heard the experiences of refugees in Finland concerning family separation. Refugees’ separation from their family has been researched particularly from the point of view of its psychological consequences. It has been discovered that separation causes various symptoms from anxiety to insomnia and problems in concentration and learning. Family separation also makes integration more challenging. It may also retraumatize refugees. Research conducted by Rousseau and his colleagues (2004) concludes that refugee families with drastically differing experiences from the period of separation benefit from finding a shared narrative about their separation.

However, majority of the refugees we interviewed did not wish to share their experiences about family separation or they lacked the space and opportunity to do so. Especially unaccompanied refugee minors reported that counselors and other members of staff they encountered did not inquire about their family relations. Conversations with group home counselors revealed that the reason for the evasion of this topic is the fear that the young person would be traumatized when family is discussed. This contradicts research findings, which show that reminiscing about family is beneficial.

Years of separation

Many of the interviewed refugees said that even though family was rarely discussed with others while in Finland, they phoned their family daily. However, there were disparities in the frequency of contact as some were in touch with their family only a couple of times per month. For some, staying in touch with their family was altogether impossible as the family lived at a refugee camp or otherwise outside of reach. Particularly those who were less frequently in touch with their family reported reactions of shock and dismay when family members learned about their new life. One young man had told his mother about his occasional use of alcohol, causing his religious mother to get angry and accuse him of lying. She could not believe her son was drinking. Having different experiences in life might make staying in touch even more challenging.

Long-lost family members could also seem estranged. In one family, the mother had been discovered after being missing for years, and she no longer remembered her children as a result of serious trauma. The family that had fled to Finland found it nearly impossible to understand her changed personality and missing memories. Family reunification proved also impossible since at that point the children were no longer minors.

Family reunited

A few of the people we interviewed had succeeded to reunite with their families.  Seeing their family again was a huge relief as they no longer needed to fear over their family’s safety. However, it was also a start of a reconstruction of family ties. A spouse moving to Finland might have become increasingly religious during the separation, while the refugee living in Finland had become more secular in their beliefs. Some of the interviewed had also converted from Islam to Christianity, which was not an easy change to digest for the family who arrived to Finland. In some cases, those who came to Finland later were also highly dependent on their spouse or children for language assistant.

However, every family’s situation was unique. One father described how her wife, who moved to Finland later, had quickly surpassed his language skills and befriended their Finnish neighbors. The father felt his integration process was hindered by the traumatizing refugee journey by sea and the following concern over his family’s well being, while his wife was able to start her new life right away after moving to Finland.

One young person we interviewed had managed to reunite his family after living for several years in Finland with his little sister. He described the difficulties of his parents and his sister to find a common ground. The sister had grown into a teenager during her stay in Finland, and she had been forced to become independent at a very early age. Therefore she found it impossible to accept the new situation where her parents aimed to restrict her behavior and social interactions. The older brother, who had already moved out of home to pursue his studies, found the constant peace negotiations between his parents and sister exhausting. He explained that now his previous anxiety concerning his family’s safety had changed into constant conflict between the family members.

To sum up, though the conditions of daily life can become improved for refugees living in Finland, a long family reunification process both weakens the chances for integration and creates friction between the family members as they try to find a path for peaceful coexistence in their new home.


Rousseau, C., Rufagari, M. C., Bagilishya, D., & Measham, T. (2004) Remaking family life: Strategies for re-establishing continuity among Congolese refugees during the family reunification process. Social Science & Medicine 59(5), 1095-1108.

This blog entry is the third part of a three-part multilingual series showcasing the results of the research project “Family Separation, Immigration Status and Everyday Safety”. The project investigates the impact of immigration policy restrictions in terms of experiencing and organizing everyday safety among vulnerable immigrants and their transnational families. The first part of the series can be found here and the second one here

This article has been translated into Arabic, Dari, and Finnish.