Of 88 undocumented migrants in a Swedish study, 71 per cent showed signs of depression and 58 per cent of severe depression. (Photo: Shutterstock / NTB scanpix)

Anxiety and depression high among undocumented migrants in Sweden

Half say they often go hungry and few have permanent places to live, according to a survey of 88 migrants.

About seven in ten undocumented migrants (UMs) have symptoms of depression and almost as many of anxiety. Nearly six out of ten show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These figures emerged from a study that included 88 adult men and women without legal residency status in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö from 2014 to 2016.

Half the UMs come from Afghanistan and the Middle East. One third are from former Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union.

The figures are alarmingly high, according to the researchers. Many UMs show signs of serious psychological problems.

Symptoms of severe depression were reported by 58 per cent of the study participants. The prevalence of these symptoms in the adult Swedish population, by contrast, is five per cent.

Going hungry

The researchers charted symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD using standardized questionnaires that revealed how participants had felt in recent weeks. The results were based on participants who answered all the questions on at least one of the three questionnaires.

The survey showed that 25-39 year olds are more prone to anxiety than the youngest UMs, whereas those over 40 years of age are more depressed. Few gender differences emerged.

Immigrants lack residence permits either because they have received a final denial of their asylum application, they have a visa that has expired or they never applied for a visa in the first place. One third had been undocumented for more than two years.

The researchers also asked how UMs experienced their situation. Most people said they lacked a permanent place to live. More than half answered that they often went hungry.

Where do undocumented migrants come from?
  • Afghanistan: 28%
  • Middle East: 18%
  • Former Yugoslavia: 16%
  • Former Soviet Union: 15%
  • Africa: 15%
  • Other: 8%

The researchers have excluded EU countries.
Source: Andersson et al., 2018

Stressful situation

Stressors notwithstanding, they choose to stay in Sweden. If they persevere for four years, UMs whose application was denied can apply for asylum again.

In the meantime, many fear being deported to their country of origin, making everyday life stressful.

“Undocumented migrants are a very vulnerable group, and the incidence of stress-related illness is high. Many participants reported that they would never have been able to manage if it hadn’t been for the help of churches and others social supports,” says researcher Lena Andersson in a press release from the University of Gothenburg (in Swedish).

Migrants may also be carrying trauma from war, persecution or other issues that they are not getting help with and which make them more vulnerable to mental health problems in a difficult life situation.

UMs have problems in Norway as well

This picture is not necessarily typical of undocumented migrants in Sweden. The researchers know little about them.

Since people without legal residency status are often afraid of being discovered and deported, it’s difficult to get them to show up for research studies.

The researchers won the UMs’ trust by contacting them through organizations and churches that provide support. Those who are the worst off may be the ones who find their way there.

However, the researchers believe that the soaring incidence of psychological problems may be affecting more people than only the study participants.

They point to a study from Norway published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing in 2016, which reveals that some UMs are in difficult situations there too.

Of the 90 study patients, 87 per cent showed symptoms of severe depression and just as many of anxiety. The Norwegian researchers used a different method to measure the symptoms.

Both in Norway and Sweden, people without a residence permit are only entitled to urgent health care.

But Sweden has now agreed to international regulations that say that all people have the right to health care, food and shelter, say the Swedish researchers.


Read the Norwegian version of this article at forskning.no

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