In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immigration and Trauma

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Immigration and Secondary, Intergenerational, and Collective Trauma
  • Care for Immigrants with Trauma Experiences
  • Specific Groups of Concern
  • Reference Material
  • Textbooks

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Social Work Immigration and Trauma
Mitra Naseh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0327


While most people continue to live in their countries of origin, on average, one in every twenty-eight people lived in a country different from their country of birth by the end of 2021. Researchers commonly categorize migration as either voluntary or forced; however, for many immigrants, the decision to leave could be the result of an array of factors in-between forced decisions and choices. Forced migration is often abrupt and unplanned and happens in response to human-made or natural disasters. Voluntary migration, on the other hand, is usually planned and occurs in search of better living conditions. In the context of forced migration, the decision to leave often happens following a traumatic experience such as violence, persecution, and torture in war or conflict-affected areas or starvation, disease, and loss of friends or family members after natural disasters. For the majority of forced migrants, passing an international border to seek safety is also a life-threatening experience, with the risk of trafficking and sexual exploitation. In the post-migration phase, recognized groups of forcibly displaced people, including refugees, asylum seekers, survivors of trafficking, and unaccompanied minors, receive some level of protection and specific rights. Immigrants who are not recognized as groups needing protection should present the legal documents required by host countries upon arrival; otherwise, they may face further traumatic experiences such as violence, deportation or detention, and verbal or physical abuse in transit. Leaving familiar spaces behind, arduous journeys to host countries, and adjusting to new environments often bring major stressors to the life of different groups of immigrants, including those who left their countries voluntarily. Immigrants may live with a profound sense of loss as the result of family separation or loss of familiar language, values, culture, attitudes, and support networks. Stressors associated with acculturation, role change and changes in the family system, under-evaluation of education or skills, susceptibility to economic insecurity and exploitation, isolation, difficulty accessing resources and navigating complex and unfamiliar systems, language barriers, anti-immigrant environments, discrimination, limited social supports, and worries about family welfare are also common among different groups of immigrants.

General Overview

According to the 2022 World Migration Report, around 128 million individuals were living as immigrants in 2021, accounting for around 3.6 percent of the global population (McAuliffe and Triandafyllidou 2021). While the population of immigrants had steady growth over the past five decades, according United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 2022, the population of forcibly displaced people, including refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced people, grew substantially and reached a record-high number of 103 million by mid-2022. This record-high number does not even account for the population of survivors of natural disasters and those who have been forced into displacement by climate change. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Global Conflict Tracker suggests that none of the ongoing wars and conflicts around the world are close to being resolved. With climate change and the ongoing conflicts around the world, we can expect that the population of forcibly displaced people will continue to grow substantially in the coming years. As suggested by Goodman, et al. 2017, the growing population of immigrants, specifically forcibly displaced people, are disproportionately more likely to experience traumatic events. High rates of trauma experiences among refugees in one of the biggest refugee camps in the world are documented in the study Mulwa, et al. 2021. Evidence suggests an association between exposure to traumatic events and psychological disorders, specifically post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Carswell, et al. 2011 provides evidence of an association between exposure to traumatic events and PTSD among refugees and immigrants. A high prevalence of PTSD has been reported in multiple studies among different groups of immigrants, specifically forcibly displaced people. Fazel, et al. 2005, a systematic review of the literature, suggests that the prevalence of PTSD could be up to ten times higher among refugees compared to similar populations. In Wang, et al. 2019, a systematic review and meta-analysis, prevalence of PTSD was estimated to be close to 18 percent among typhoon and hurricane survivors. The prevalence of PTSD was estimated to be even higher, around 31.5 percent, among adult refugees and asylum seekers in Blackmore, et al. 2020, a systematic review and meta-analysis.

  • Blackmore, R., J. A. Boyle, M. Fazel, et al. 2020. The prevalence of mental illness in refugees and asylum seekers: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS Medicine 17.9: e1003337.

    DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003337

    This systematic review and meta-analysis is based on twenty-six studies and suggests a PTSD prevalence rate of 31.46 percent (95% CI 24.43–38.5) among a compiled sample of 5,143 adult refugees and asylum seekers across fifteen countries.

  • Carswell, K., P. Blackburn, and C. Barker. 2011. The relationship between trauma, post-migration problems and the psychological well-being of refugees and asylum seekers. International Journal of Social Psychiatry 57.2: 107–119.

    DOI: 10.1177/0020764009105699

    This small-scale study (N = 47) found bivariate associations between traumatic experiences as well as post-migration problems and PTSD among refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.

  • Council on Foreign Relations. n.d. Global Conflict Tracker.

    This website provides an interactive map and a brief summary of ongoing wars and conflicts.

  • Fazel, M., J. Wheeler, and J. Danesh. 2005. Prevalence of serious mental disorder in 7000 refugees resettled in Western countries: A systematic review. Lancet 365.9467: 1309–1314.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(05)61027–6

    This systematic review is based on twenty surveys with data on PTSD among refugees; it concludes that refugees who have been resettled in Western countries were about ten times more likely to have PTSD compared to age-matched general populations in similar countries.

  • Goodman, R. D., C. K. Vesely, B. Letiecq, and C. L. Cleaveland. 2017. Trauma and resilience among refugee and undocumented immigrant women. Journal of Counseling & Development, 95.3: 309–321.

    DOI: 10.1002/jcad.12145

    This small-scale (N = 19) qualitative study used a phenomenological approach to document trauma experiences and resilience among refugee and undocumented immigrant women in the U.S.

  • McAuliffe, M., and A. Triandafyllidou, eds. 2021. World migration report 2022. Geneva, Switzerland: International Organization for Migration.

    This report provides key information on migration and migrants at the global and regional levels. This online report has chapters on COVID-19 and climate change and how these emerging issues have impacted the mobility of migrants.

  • Mulwa, E. N., P. Odera, and R. Simiyu. 2021. Nature and extent of traumatic experiences among refugees in Dadaab Camp, Kenya. Psychology 12.12: 1911–1932.

    DOI: 10.4236/psych.2021.1212116

    This cross-sectional study calculated the prevalence of traumatic experiences among a sample of 98,811 refugees in the Dadaab Camp, one of the biggest refugee camps in the world. Results suggest that 87.9 percent of the surveyed refugees had experienced traumatic events, including war or conflict, violence, and loss of family members.

  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 2022. Mid-year trends 2022. Copenhagen: UNHCR.

    This report provides key information on the global population of refugees, asylum-seekers, internally displaced people (IDP), and stateless people within the first six months of 2022.

  • Wang, Z., X. Wu, W. Dai, et al. 2019. The prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder among survivors after a typhoon or hurricane: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness 13.5–6: 1065–1073.

    DOI: 10.1017/dmp.2019.26

    This systematic review and meta-analysis calculated the combined prevalence of PTSD as 17.81 percent among 43,123 survivors of typhoons or hurricanes.

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