The Mental Trauma We’re Inflicting On Asylum Seekers Is Entirely Preventable


The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has a major fundraising effort coming up. Dr Samantha Ratnam explains why you should support it.

Australia’s war on people seeking asylum isn’t only confined to the camps on Manus and Nauru. For the 24,500 people who came by sea in the years leading up to the ‘Pacific Solution’, the experience of applying for asylum has been traumatic. This trauma is a result of a deliberate policy by the Australian government to make their status here feel tenuous, stressful and uncertain.

People seeking asylum who arrive by boat are subject to a different set of rules than those who come by plane. They aren’t allowed to get permanent protection, they must go through the government’s unfair ‘Fast-Track’ process that deprives people of a fair hearing and review, they aren’t allowed to reunite with family in Australia, and often they lose their work rights and income support.

The combined effect of these policies is having a devastating impact on the mental health of people seeking asylum, including children. You’d expect the 70 per cent of people who are able to stay to be elated. Instead, many of them feel like they are falling apart.

They’ve waited alone for five years only to be told that despite Australia determining them to be a refugee, their visa will be temporary and in three years’ time, there is a possibility they will be sent back to the country from which they fled persecution. The granting of a visa is a bittersweet moment, and for some, the pain and guilt of it are too much to bear.

I’ve worked for 15 years in the community sector and what pains me most is that the mental health trauma we are inflicting on people seeking asylum is preventable.

We know that 90 per cent of people who spend three months or more in detention develop a mental health condition. These are some of the most resilient people you will ever meet who are pushed to their limits. But when we put people into detention for limitless periods of time, strip away people’s rights, remove their social support networks and prevent them from planning for the future and subject them to conditions of poverty and destitution, it’s no wonder people have mental breakdowns.

For many, the psychological injuries they sustain will be with them for the rest of their lives.

But it wasn’t always this way. In the past, Australia has had a very successful settlement services program where we’ve offered intensive and ongoing support to all migrants who arrived here as refugees. But now refugees will not be given the support they need to settle into their permanent lives because the government no longer allows access to settlement services if you receive a temporary protection visa.

I’ve seen how much a genuine welcome and a little support can mean to a family. When I came to Australia 28 years ago from war-torn Sri Lanka, the climate was different. Our leaders were talking about embracing multiculturalism. This made a big difference to us, even as children.

Growing up here, people welcomed immigrants because that’s what being Australian was about. And as a result, we had a good start to life thanks to Australia’s quality public education and robust health system. My family became contributing members of society because fellow Australians helped us embark on new lives in this country.

The contrast between the welcome my family enjoyed and the torment the government is inflicting on refugees today is enough to make me weep.

We might not be able to prevent the trauma that made our guests flee, but it’s in our hands to make sure the trauma stops once they reach our shores.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) is holding a telethon on World Refugee Day, June 20, to raise awareness and much needed funds to support and empower refugees and people seeking asylum. The Australian public is encouraged to donate on the day or in the lead up. Please click hereclick here for more information on how to get involved and donate.

Dr Samantha Ratnam is the manager of Client Services at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.