University of South Australia

Services for Students
Services for Staff
Course Information
Research and Consultancy
International Services


February 15 2002

 It’s a long way back to normal life for asylum 
seekers and refugees

Australia receives about 4000 refugees each year – a figure that has remained roughly constant since 1997.

Many of these people arrive having left scenarios of life-threatening fear and terror, firstly in their homeland, and then in the countries they flee through in the hope of finding peace and security for themselves and their families. 

Australia is the only country in the world that imposes mandatory indefinite detention for asylum seekers who arrive without permission. The detention of men women and children in camps staffed by guards will continue for as long as it takes for each case to be heard. That sometimes equates to years. At the end of the day about 90 percent are accepted as genuine refugees. 

But according to UniSA’s Associate Professor Nicholas Procter, a specialist in mental health and in particular the impacts of the refugee experience, getting out does not necessarily spell the end of anguish and depression for a refugee. 

“While asylum seekers and refugees have differing experiences overall, it is utterly simplistic to assume that survival or escape is the end of the refugee story,” Prof Procter says. 

“These people don’t make the decision to leave their homeland lightly – for a large percentage of refugees the alternative to leaving is persecution or death. 

“Because many are already poor and disempowered, they often have to make some of the most difficult choices imaginable, such as who in the family should escape and who should be left behind. So that sometimes a mother and young children will arrive knowing her husband, father and older children are still in danger or a teenager will arrive never knowing if his or her family has survived. 

“It is hard for the average Australian to imagine what this would be like and I think its very easy to see their plight as something that happens to other people – people not like us.  But from a mental health perspective they are exactly like us – vulnerable under stress, scared and often grieving for the loss of home and family.” 

Prof Procter says it is difficult for new arrivals to adjust to their new country in the best of circumstances – but if the stress and insecurity continues, as it often does for refugees, their chances of longer term depression and mental health problems increases. 

“Once released from detention if they don’t find work and are not supported by social networks it is common for sadness and depression to take hold,” he said. 

“If success is stalled and they remain unemployed or isolated for too long they will slow down, become deeply lonely and depressed often feeling like complete outsiders in the community.  This situation is made worse in the face of hostile media headlines and comments that do not nurture good relationships with the host community”. 

Professor Procter believes the successful settlement of refugees who have come to Australia seeking asylum will only be achieved through a more efficient processing of applications and a stronger commitment to providing sensitive health, care and support services. 

“In health and care settings we see refugees who have often reached crisis in terms of their distress and depression,” he said. 

“As mental health professionals we attempt to help new refugees make sense of a sometimes hostile world by building trust. That can only come from listening to their needs, hearing their problems, fears and past experiences with open ears and developing an approach that is culturally and individually sensitive.” 

Media contact: Michèle Nardelli (08) 8302 0966 or 041 8823673







For queries relating to links contact: | Top of Page
Disclaimer | Copyright (c) 2000 | Last updated September 04, 2003