Seeking Asylum in Australia: Mental health and human rights of children and families

Seeking Asylum in Australia: Mental health and human rights of children and families

19 April 2012

AIFS Seminar Report, March 2012

Asylum seekers are profoundly negatively affected by their time in detention. Depression, anxiety and posttraumatic stress symptoms are common mental health problems experienced by parents and children who have been detained. Not surprisingly, the longer asylum seekers are detained, the more acute the decline in their mental health.

These were key messages in an AIFS seminar presented by Professor Louise Newman,1 which explored the impact of detention on asylum seekers with a focus on children and families. Australian Immigration Law requires the detention of all unauthorised arrivals until resolution of their asylum claims.

Time in detention also raises issues related to psychosocial adaption, recovery and social inclusion. While detained, adults (including parents) often experience major depression. Children (both accompanied and unaccompanied) subsequently experience attachment disorders, withdrawal and developmental delays.

Upon exiting detention, traumatised children and families frequently feel ambivalent about integrating into Australian society. Unaccompanied minors also struggle to stay connected with their cultural practices and traditions, further adding to their grief and isolation.

Alternative strategies and practices to enhance the mental health and social and emotional wellbeing of young asylum seekers and families, according to Professor Newman, include:

  • community-detention options;
  • opportunities for children and families to socialise in communities during detention, including the ability for children to attend school;
  • guardians for unaccompanied minors;
  • ongoing advocacy to promote and protect the human rights of asylum seekers;
  • settlement support;
  • trans-generational repair to help children maintain their cultural identity and not become “stuck” with unspeakable trauma; and
  • further research to identify the factors that support recovery and successful settlement following detention.

Improved assessment processes are also critical. Such processes need to adopt a trauma framework that ensures all assessors understand the nature of trauma and how it can impact on an individual’s ability to effectively communicate their reasons for seeking asylum.

Significant barriers to protecting the mental health and social and emotional wellbeing of young asylum seekers and families need to be overcome. Key barriers include:

  • incomplete data – making it difficult to determine the nature or extent of problems (such as self-harm and suicidal behaviour);
  • inaccessible services – due either to physical barriers or issues of acceptability (asylum seekers may view existing services with fear or mistrust due to previous negative experiences in Australia or overseas);
  • limited understandings of how (if at all) Western models of trauma are relevant or meaningful to asylum seekers; and
  • dehumanising processes and institutions (e.g., current detention environments can teach children to identify with “their number” rather than their name, and may offer few safe spaces for play, socialising and education).

Priority action is needed to protect young asylum seekers and families, positively supporting their basic human rights, psychosocial adaption and effective recovery.

Audio, slides and transcripts of this seminar are available.

1. Louise Newman is Professor of Developmental Psychiatry, and Director for the Centre for Developmental Psychiatry & Psychology at Monash University.

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Jacqueline Stewart

External contributor

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