Many refugees and people seeking asylum arrive in Australia after extended periods living in conditions that have serious impacts on their physical and/or mental health. 

This includes: 

  • experiences of trauma and torture
  • deprivation and prolonged poverty
  • periods in immigration detention
  • poor access to healthcare (Department of Health and Human Services 2014).

Around 4,000 refugees settle in Victoria each year through the Humanitarian Programme. Another 10,000 people who arrived as asylum seekers live in the Victorian community on bridging visas while they wait for the determination of their refugee status. Victoria typically has the largest refugee intake and highest numbers of asylum seekers in Australia. 

Health needs of asylum seekers and refugees

Compared with the general population, refugees and people seeking asylum tend to have complex health needs, including:

  • nutritional deficiencies
  • under-immunisation
  • poor dental and eye health
  • poorly managed chronic disease 
  • delayed development and growth in children (Milosevic, Cheng and Smith 2012). 

They may also experience higher levels of psychological distress and increased risk of mental illness, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety (Davidson and Carr 2010). 

Refugees and people seeking asylum are more likely than the general Australian population to have a high risk of a serious mental illness. More than 50 per cent of people seeking asylum living in the community are estimated to be living with major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (Hocking, Kennedy and Sundram 2015).

People on temporary visas

While many refugees arrive in Australia as part of the off-shore humanitarian program on permanent visas, a number of refugees and people seeking asylum reside for extended periods of time in the community on temporary visas (Department of Home Affairs 2018).

In addition to the physical and mental health challenges outlined above, people on temporary visas can experience the mental health impacts of: 

  • prolonged uncertainty
  • indefinite separation from family in precarious circumstances
  • barriers to accessing services due to their visa, Medicare, or income status (Australian Red Cross 2013). 

In Victoria, all refugees and people seeking asylum can access state-funded healthcare regardless of visa or Medicare status.

Find out more

Find out more about Refugee and asylum seeker health and wellbeing.

References

Australian Red Cross 2013, Inaugural vulnerability report: Inside the process of seeking asylum in Australia,, Australian Red Cross, Canberra.

Davidson G and Carr S 2010, 'Forced migration, social exclusion and poverty: introduction', Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology, vol. 4, no. 1.

Department of Health and Human Services 2014, The Victorian refugee and asylum seeker health action plan 2014–2018, State Government of Victoria, Melbourne.

Department of Home Affairs 2018, Visa statistics, Commonwealth Government of Australia, Canberra.

Hocking D, Kennedy G and Sundram S 2015, ‘Mental disorders in asylum seekers: the role of the refugee determination process and employment’, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, vol. 203, no. 1.

Milosevic D, Cheng IH and Smith M 2012, ‘The NSW Refugee Health Service: improving refugee access to primary care’, Australian Family Physician, vol. 41, no. 3. 

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