In one of the largest mass-migration flows in recent history, approximately 3.4 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since late February. Most are women and children, and many families have been torn apart because the Ukraine State Border Guard Service has prohibited men ages 18 to 60 from leaving the country. While it may be too soon to know the full impact of the war in Ukraine, Penn State social science research on other displaced populations can help anticipate Ukrainian refugees’ short-term needs and long-term challenges.
To build on this work, the Social Science Research Institute will be launching a new initiative on migration in the Fall of 2022 to be led by Jennifer Van Hook, Roy C. Buck Professor of Sociology and Demography in the College of the Liberal Arts. The primary mission of the new initiative will be to broaden Penn State’s involvement in helping to build a more just and equitable response to the needs of immigrants and their families.
The initiative will invest in high-impact research projects through the provision of seed grants, a new working group, and the recruitment of a postdoctoral scholar. It will also engage graduate and undergraduate students in social science research projects related to migration.
Displaced populations around the world share many common experiences, including exposure to conflict and violence, family separation, uncertainty, loss, resettlement in a foreign place, and the toll these experiences take on mental and physical health, according to researchers at Penn State who study the experiences of displaced populations.
Meeting immediate needs
Meeting the housing, employment, and schooling needs of over three million displaced people in the span of a few weeks can be challenging; however, according to several Penn State researchers, some of these challenges can be met through innovative use of information technology.
Carleen Maitland, professor of information sciences and technology, is conducting research on how information technology can be used in organizations providing humanitarian assistance to refugees. Her 2018 publication, “Digital Lifeline? ICTs for Refugees and Displaced Persons,” examines the role technologies play in a variety of refugee support processes, from refugee status determination to providing digital identity.
“My research draws on field work I conducted in the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America while working with technology firms and humanitarian organizations, such as the UN Refugee Agency and the U.S. State Department,” said Maitland. “People fleeing war also need legal assistance as they seek to cross international borders and make claims for asylum. Much of the legal work for Ukrainians has been occurring in Europe, yet assistance is also needed in the communities where humanitarian migrants settle. “
Here in central Pennsylvania, Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion and director of Penn State’s Center for Immigrants’ Rights Clinic (CIRC), is advocating for those seeking asylum, most recently in their response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
“The CIRC educates the local community about the legal options available under U.S. immigration, and assists with asylum and adjustment of status applications for Afghans. We’ve also created a variety of educational resources that include the basics of asylum, humanitarian parole, rights and responsibilities of Afghans,” Wadhia said.
Additionally, Wadhia teaches asylum and refugee law as well as immigration law at Penn State Law. Her research focuses on the role of discretion in immigration and at the intersection of race, national security, and immigration.
For people fleeing conflict, difficulties do not end after escaping the war zone. Exposure to conflict, especially in early life, can have long-term effects on physical health.
According to Steven Haas, associate professor of sociology, war can have enduring impacts on health by severely altering or limiting what people have available to eat, changing how people’s bodies react to stress, and by limiting people’s ability to work, and access markets, schools, and other material and social resources.
“I’ve examined European adults who were exposed as children to hostilities during World War II. My work with recent Penn State doctoral graduate Daniel Ramirez shows that such exposures have substantial scarring effects on children and that they carry these scars throughout their lives,” Haas said.
For example, according to Haas, children exposed to war grow up to have substantially worse health in adulthood. This includes higher rates of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, and hypertension, as well as increased risk of physical limitations and worse self-rated health.
“War and trauma also take a toll on mental health,” said Haas. “We’ve found that people who were exposed to conflict during WWII were more likely to experience depression and to take up unhealthy coping behaviors such as smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. Similar patterns have been found among modern-day displaced populations.”
In other work, Population Research Institute Affiliate and University of Pittsburgh Associate Professor of Anthropology Yolanda Covington-Ward studies the experiences of Liberian immigrants and refugees in the Pittsburgh area. The small West African nation of Liberia suffered through 14 years of civil war from 1989 to 2003.
Covington-Ward’s research shows that the war had dire consequences for the Liberians who fled. Liberians in Pittsburgh describe the loss of human life — family, friends, and neighbors — but also the loss of property, educational and job opportunities, entire neighborhoods, and having to face the challenges of physical and mental health consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder.
In Covington-Ward’s studies, one interviewee explained, “Some of us [are] very traumatized.” Another interviewee described the enduring impact of being shot as a child during the war: “Mentally … I don't like to watch ... war show[s] on T.V., even the fireworks because … I’m thinking … is it a gun shot or something?”
According to Covington-Ward, displacement from armed conflict often involves family separation.
“This is a common occurrence among Ukrainian families and among migrant families more generally, and it has been shown to have substantial impacts on people’s lives,” said Covington-Ward.
Additional research by Brian Thiede, associate professor of rural sociology; James Piazza, liberal arts professor of political science; and colleagues found that exposure to conflict reduced birth rates in sub-Saharan Africa. “We attribute this effect, in part, to the separation of spouses that occurs during conflict,” Thiede said.
Even when family separation occurs under the best of circumstances and is not forced by war, it can have significant short- and long-run impacts on children and parents. Jennifer Glick, Hoffman Professor of Sociology and director of the Population Research Institute, recently co-edited a compilation of research comparing children’s well-being following different types of family separation in the United States. “In this work, we demonstrated that separation from primary caregivers, particularly involuntary separation, increases children’s psychological distress,” Glick explained.
Penn State researchers have also found that social networks can play an important role during displacement. Heather Randell, assistant professor of rural sociology and demography, studied households displaced by a large dam in Brazil.
“Many households chose to migrate to the same place as family and close friends to maintain social support,” Randell said. “However, outcomes were not as good when this was not possible. Among displaced households who reported declines in well-being, many attributed moving far from family and members of their old community as a cause.”
According to the researchers, refugees from Ukraine who resettle far from others in their family or community will also face greater challenges settling into their new homes and communities.
Conflict and sudden moves can also disrupt school, which research has shown can have long term consequences for socioeconomic status in adulthood. Glick’s research shows that disruptions to schooling and difficulty entering school following a move to a new country are also associated with lower educational attainment, especially for older children.
“Adolescents have less time to adapt to their new environments before they are adults and may be permanently derailed from their education, which may stunt socioeconomic attainment in adulthood,” Glick said.
Finally, conflict and other disasters — for example, famines — can disrupt normal migration flows, according to researchers. Some of the most vulnerable people may be “trapped” in place, unable to move away. For example, Thiede and his colleagues found that exposure to adverse environmental conditions actually reduced internal migration in some parts of South America, especially in the poorest countries where people did not have the resources to move.
According to Associate Professor of Sociology Ashton Verdery and his colleagues, climate disasters can also deter those who would otherwise return home. “Prior to 2020, about 3 million Ukrainians lived abroad as labor migrants engaged in temporary, circular migration with a high likelihood of returning within 5 years,” said Verdery. “But now, many of these circular migrants may not return home, which could substantially increase the total effects of the war in Ukraine, even if such persons are not counted as displaced because they were already residing out of the country.”
The future of migration and a new initiative at Penn State
According to the researchers, due to the impacts of conflict, family separation, and disruption, the ramifications of the conflict in Ukraine are likely to spill over into multiple domains of people’s lives for decades to come.
“Events such as the ongoing Ukrainian refugee crisis and its accompanying short- and long-term challenges are likely to continue to occur well into the future. As of 2020, 281 million people, or 3.6% of the world's population, lived in a different country from where they were born, and a growing share of them are children,” said Van Hook.
In 2021 alone, 34.3 million people were classified as refugees, and even more — 48.0 million — were displaced within their own countries. Most migration scholars predict that these figures will increase in coming decades. Multiple forces — population aging and labor shortages in high- and middle-income countries, conflict, and climate change — will likely drive migration for the foreseeable future, said the researchers.
According to Van Hook, one way the academic community can help meet some of the challenges related to migration is to continue to engage in high-impact research and community-based work.
“Penn State has a strong history of excellence in demographic, social and community-engaged research on migration and migrants. The new initiative on migration will expand our involvement in building a more just and equitable response to the needs of immigrants and their families,” said Van Hook.
Interested faculty members and students are encouraged to reach out to Van Hook for more information on the initiative.