Research Immigration

Occupational Downgrading Is a Cause of Mental Health Problems Among Undocumented Migrants

, by Ezio Renda
A category particularly exposed to mental health risk factors

A new study ("Downgraded dreams: Labor market outcomes and mental health in undocumented migration"), conducted by Carlo Devillanova of the Department of Social and Political Sciences at Bocconi University, in collaboration with Cristina Franco of the European Commission and Anna Spada of Naga, a charity, analyzed the mental health and labor integration conditions of undocumented migrants in Italy. The study, published in SSM - Population Health, represents a first in-depth investigation of the association between occupational downgrading and mental disorders among this vulnerable population.

Main Results 

Using a unique dataset collected from an outpatient clinic in Milan, the study analyzed the health conditions and occupational information of 1738 undocumented migrants who had their first medical examination in 2017-2018. It emerges that 66.63% of the migrant workers had experienced an occupational downgrade, and 5.58% were diagnosed with mental disorders. The results show that undocumented migrants who experience occupational downgrading have a significantly higher risk of developing mental disorders. According to Devillanova, “Occupational downgrading experienced by undocumented migrants has a strongly negative effect on their mental well-being, which adds up to all the other risk factors these individuals are constantly subjected to, highlighting the need for policies that address the integration of these individuals not only in the labor market, but also in the health care system.”

Background and Policy Implications 

Irregular migration is a global challenge, with approximately 281 million international migrants worldwide, 15-20% of whom are undocumented. This population is exposed to precarious living and working conditions that increase the risk of mental health problems. This research emphasizes the importance of considering the impact of migration policies as a whole, including restrictive entry and labor market integration policies, on migrants' health. In addition, ensuring access to primary care for all migrants is crucial for the early detection and treatment of mental health conditions. “Access to primary care is critical to breaking the vicious cycle of labor market segregation and poor mental health among undocumented migrants,” Devillanova adds.

Reflections on current events 

The issue of irregular migration is constantly in the spotlight of political and media-driven debate. Recent tensions at European borders and increasingly restrictive migration policies highlight the need for solutions that address the psychological well-being of migrants. In this context, studies such as the one conducted by Devillanova and colleagues provide essential data that may help define policy decisions and promote more humane and inclusive actions. 

This pioneering study highlights the complexity of the challenges faced by undocumented migrants and the need for integrated policies that consider both employment and health aspects. The evidence presented calls for deep reflection and concerted action to improve the living and working conditions of these vulnerable populations.


Bocconi University
Department of Social and Political Sciences