Transnational families have been defined as families «that live some or most of the time separated from each other, yet hold together and create something that can be seen as a feeling of collective welfare and unity, i.e. ‘familyhood’, even across national borders».

In this frame of reference, the concept of care becomes highly relevant. In recent years, international migration studies have brought forth the perspective of global care chains of both children and elderly parents, based on the understanding of “care” as not only the physical one. This vision of transnational family dynamics in terms of “circulation of care” is based on a multidimensional perception of care; such that can be provided remotely, through the use of media, or through direct support in situations of physical co-presence, during visits in both the country of origin or the host country.

This multidimensional consideration of care includes financial support (in the form of sending remittances and objects), practical support (advice and assistance), emotional support and, finally, tending to the needs (e.g. housing) of those remaining in the country of origin. In this case, the migrant generally assumes the role of the organiser of the transnational family, coordinating different types of support at a distance, mobilising the intervention of other family members and delegating support to a third person (a family member, a friend, a neighbour, etc.), or to an institution.

These transnational practices are particularly significant in the case of migrants originating from sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, sub-Saharan migrants tend to belong to transnational families more often than migrants of other origins, as demonstrated in nationally representative surveys conducted in France (TeO) and Spain (ENI). Moreover, a study on the functioning of families of Congolese, Ghanaian, and Senegalese migrants conducted in the MAFE (Migrations between Africa and Europe) research programme has found that sub-Saharan migrants frequently prefer to lead transnational family lives. This choice may be explained in economic terms: on the one hand, it is cheaper for migrants to support their families in Africa than in Europe; on the other, the presence of a spouse and children in the country of origin ensures the continued transfer or remittances.

More importantly, it is necessary to understand that the Western nuclear family model very often does not correspond to the family experience of migrants before their departure. In fact, in many cultures in sub-Saharan Africa, non-cohabitation of members of the same nuclear family can be frequent, irrespective of parental migration. In many countries, parents oftentimes put their children into the care of another relative for different reasons, and this practice is not at all considered as abandonment. Therefore, for some international migrant parents, leaving their children in their home country in the care of other family members is an acceptable practice, compatible with cultural family norms.

On this point, researcher Gasparetti states: «Though the migratory experience offers opportunities for new kinds of practices, traditions, and family dynamics to develop, it often rearticulates patterns and codes of behaviour that already exist in the migrant’s home culture». In her paper, Gasparetti focuses on Senegalese migrants in Italy. Senegalese parents prefer that their children be raised in Senegal under the care of relatives, either because of financial reasons, or because of the desire for them to acquire traditional values and the Wolof language. The author specifies: «This practice among Senegalese parents long predates contemporary Senegalese migration to Europe. It follows a longstanding custom of fostering, in which parents send their children to the households of their relatives».

The Senegalese concept of teranga is perhaps an even deeper representation of such customs. Teranga is often translated as hospitality or open-door policy, but its implications stretch beyond the European understanding of this notion. Gasparetti defines it by saying: «The principle of teranga is to open your doors to any guest who may enter (ed. particularly if those guests are relatives), to feed them, house them, and treat them as family for as long as they choose to stay. The host expects no gift from the guests, no direct contribution to the household expenses or workload». She adds: «The belief is that a mother who opens her home to the children of others ensures that her children will be welcome wherever they go».

In addition to cultural aspects and norms, another important element to consider, impacting the dynamic of transnational family lives and the migration process in general, is the role of gender. For instance, some gender and migration studies suggest that women face different contexts abroad compared to their country of origin, therefore bringing about different outcomes and leading them to live in different family structures. In addition, a large-scale study carried out in Spain, investigating the impact on gender, social class, and origin on migrant health, found that migrant women of all social classes experienced worse employment conditions, greater material/financial deprivation, and lower health status than migrant men.

Undoubtedly, the impact of the several transnational ties and practices that migrant parents enact, compounding that of migration paths and conditions, particularly in their gendered specificities, also manifests itself in the mental health of migrants, alongside that of their children. An emerging body of literature focusing on the impact of transnational ties on migrant mental health indicates that such ties can be both a source of risk and of resilience. Yet, despite the spread of transnational families at a global level, still little has been investigated – particularly in the European context – on the social determinants of migrant mental health, and more in general on the effect that migration (and the resulting establishment of long-distance transnational care relationships) can have on the individual well-being of the various members of a family.

Thus far, it has been observed that in Europe migrants are at higher risk of common mental disorders or psychological distress than are natives. In addition, a study focusing on mental health among sub-Saharan African migrants, (including undocumented ones) residing in the Paris metropolitan area, has underlined that the role of gender should not be disregarded as one of the social determinants of migrant health, considering that gender affects both migration experiences and the human life at large. The study reports that «Compared to natives, sub-Saharan African women and men migrants have an increased risk of hospital admission for psychosis» and that «Among women, anxiety and depressive symptoms were strongly related to having left one’s home country because of threats to one’s life. Among men, residing illegally in the host country was related to impaired mental health. For both women and men, cross-border separation from a child less than 18 years old was not independently associated with anxiety and depressive symptoms. In addition, social and emotional support from relatives and friends – both from the society of origin and of destination – were associated with lower anxiety and depressive symptoms».

Additionally, migrant mental health is affected by the current context of anti-migrant policies and social environment in Europe, especially considering that, according to some perspectives, migrants from sub-Saharan Africa face more discrimination than migrants from other regions.

On this point, another study found that the health and emotional well-being of transnational migrant parents is impacted by several mediating variables such as legal status, socio-economic status, and the normative contexts, rather than solely factors related to the separation from their children. These results have been achieved using a comparative approach: examining the health and the emotional well-being of Nigerian migrant parents living in Ireland and the Netherlands, thus comparing migrants from the same origin country living in different host countries. These separate analyses of the Irish and the Netherlands sample highlighted the more pronounced consequences of the mediating factors related to the context of arrival. In addition, half of the sample in each country lived in transnational families at the time of the analysis and the other half did not. In both countries, it has been found that Nigerian child-fostering norms ease the impact of separation from children. Therefore, it is apparent that, even though it’s important to consider gender, other contextual factors also need to be explored.

In addition, belonging to a transnational family also affects the health and wellbeing of the children left behind by migrant parents. Recently, some large-scale studies, mostly conducted in the origin countries, have focused on the effects of maternal or paternal migration on children. For the most part, these studies tend to confirm the assumption that children have more difficulties when mothers migrate rather than fathers, although African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria did not yield uniform results on this matter. In general, such findings have found their interpretation in traditional gender norms. In fact, mothers tend to be seen by children and by society at large as the primary caregivers, and child care is expected to imply the compresence of mother and child. Thus, on the one hand, transnational migrant mothers feel guilt and stress, or sometimes develop even serious mental health conditions, due to their inability to meet these standards. On the other hand, left behind children feel that they have something missing in their lives. Viceversa, social norms on fathering demand that the father fulfill the role of financial provider for the family, an expectation that can be met or sometimes even be enhanced by migration and the sending of remittances. Therefore, a father’s migration is seen and experienced as more acceptable and conforming to gender norms, thus causing less distress in men and their children. Yet, a close investigation of most of the studies available on this topic reveals that most of the data comes from or focuses on mothers. Only recently have studies begun to approach the issue of transnational fatherhood, indicating that fathers also suffer from the separation from their children, although sometimes in different ways.

Finally, from the perspective of an adult educator or social operator approaching a transnational parent, it is important to recognise that: «Parenting from abroad comes with its own kinds of emotional sadness. Migrants may already experience loneliness and isolation living far from their community. The transnationality of their lives means that they may feel distress at their absence from home. […] Feeling isolated from home and from one’s extended family can make the separation from one’s children doubly crushing» (Gasparetti). As emerged during the Italian national Focus Group of our Erasmus+ project “NO left behind children – an action plan for parental education of migrant parents”, storytelling can be a tool to connect educators to the migrant parent. In this process, although listening is essential, the educator also needs to find the right strategies to bring out the inner dialogue of the migrant through the telling of their story. In the narration, there is an element of re-elaboration of the mourning and of the actual loss of the child that the parent does not get to raise: this loss often remains a bit obscured, put in a corner because it hardly comes out at an emotional level. In some instances, especially in the case of African transnational mothers, there can be a split in the perception of parenting and of migration. Their being a mother is not narrated: the woman feels that she is abroad in order to be a worker and make a living; then, she is going to reconnect with her motherhood later, upon return or reunification. Instead, of course, these identities go hand in hand. An effective image to represent this mindstate is that of a mother stripping layers of her clothing one by one the further she gets from her children: already starting in her move from the rural area to the capital, then migrating to other countries, establishing a progressive distance with the past until she eventually makes a clean break to reinvent herself completely from scratch. If there is no possibility or capacity to elaborate the mourning of this loss, profound tears are made: these cases require that the educator support their learner in communicating their different selves, intended as a woman, a worker, a migrant, a parent.


  • Allen White, Bilisuma B. Dito, Angela Veale and Valentina Mazzucato, “Transnational migration, health and well-being: Nigerian parents in Ireland and the Netherlands” – Comparative Migration Studies, n. 7, Article number: 44 (2019)
  • Deborah Bryceson and Ulla Vuorela, “The Transnational Family: New European Frontiers and Global Networks” (2002)
  • Fedora Gasparetti, “Relying on Teranga: Senegalese Migrants to Italy and Their Children Left Behind” – Autrepart, n. 57-58, pp. 215-232 (January, February 2011)
  • Francesca Tosi, “Quando la migrazione divide le famiglie a metà: caratteristiche e benessere dei genitori transnazionali in Italia” – Neodemos (23 April 2019)
  • Julie Pannetiera, France Lerta, Marie Jauffret Roustideb and Annabel Desgrées du Loûa, “Mental health of sub-saharan african migrants: The gendered role of migration paths and transnational ties” – SSM – Population Health n. 3, pp. 549-557 (2017)
  • Kwabena Kusi-Mensah and Olayinka Omigbodun, “Children left behind by parental migration in sub-Saharan Africa” – The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health (28 January 2020)
  • Mariarosaria De Simone, “Processi di cura nelle famiglie transnazionali: le “catene globali”” – Rivista Italiana di Educazione Familiare, n. 2, pp. 25-42 (2019)
  • Valentina Mazzucato, Djamila Schans, Kim Caarls and Cris Beauchemin “Transnational families living between Africa and Europe” – N-IUSSP (26 March 2020)

Additional resources:

  • Amparo González-Ferrera, Pau Baizán and Cris Beauchemind, “Child-Parent Separations among Senegalese Migrants to Europe: Migration Strategies or Cultural Arrangements?”
  • Boitumelo Khothatso Seepamore, “Distance parenting – implications for social work practice” – Stellenbosch online. Vol. 52 n. 4 (2016)
  • Valentina Geraci, “L’altra faccia della diaspora africana: una costante interazione tra due sponde” – Amistades (31 March 2021)
  • TCRA (Transnational Child-Raising Arrangements between Africa and Europe) –
  • Francesca Crivellaro, “Così lontane, così vicine. Famiglie migranti, ruoli familiari e nuove configurazioni di genitorialità” – Archivio Antropologico Mediterraneo, Anno XXIV, n. 23 II (2021)
  • Kim Caarls, Karlijn Haagsman, Elisabeth K. Kraus and Valentina Mazzucato, “African transnational families: Cross‐country and gendered comparisons” – Population, Space and Place | Wiley Online Library (23 May 2018)
  • ACP Secretariat, “Transnational families and the social and gender impact of mobility in ACP countries” (2012)
  • Ushehwedu Kufakurinani, Dominic Pasura and JoAnn McGregor, “Transnational Parenting and the Emergence of ‘Diaspora Orphans’ in Zimbabwe” – Brill (01 January 2014)
  • Lucy P. Jordan, Bilisuma Dito, Jenna Nobles and Elspeth Graham, “Engaged parenting, gender, and children’s time use in transnational families: An assessment spanning three global regions” – Population, Space and Place | Wiley Online Library (2018)
  • Valentina Mazzucato, Victor Cebotari, Angela Vealed, Allen White, Marzia Grassi and Jeanne Vivet, “International parental migration and the psychological well-being of children in Ghana, Nigeria, and Angola” – Social Science & Medicine. Vol. 132, pp. 215-224 (2015)