Is Australia fully equipped to supply correct mental health services to arriving refugees?

Photo: Tayla Swales


Last month Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Australia will begin to take in refugees from Central America, increasing Australia’s refugee intake by 36%. Mr Turnbull announced the motion in September at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. In his address, he also declared that although in taking refugees from  Central America, Australia’s annual intake goal will remain at 18, 750 for 2018-19, an announcement criticised by aid groups and the opposition. According to Mr Turnbull, funding for refugee programs will be increased by $130 million over the next three years. This includes refugee programs that support refugees settling into Australia by providing health services.

“We will also participate in the US-lead program to re-settle Central American refugees currently in a resettlement centre in Costa Rica” Mr Turnbull said.

This means the refugees planned to arrive to Australia from Central America will do so via the Costa Rican resettlement centre. This will be the first time Australia will participate in such a program in Central America and a first for refugee support groups in Australia. But even with the promised funding from Mr Turnbull, is Australia fully equipped to supply accurate mental health services to the arriving refugees?

“The reality is that one of the features of the Australian migration story — and we are a nation built by immigration — is that we have done a very effective job over many decades, of settling our migrants, ensuring that they are integrated, and of course the ones that have the greatest challenge are very often the refugees” Mr Turnbull said during the meeting.

As the majority of Australia’s refugees currently arrive from the Middle East and parts of Africa, refugees arriving from Central America will have different needs from Australia services than those already in place. In 2013 to 2014, 2155 visas were provided to refugees born in Iraq. A further 1000 visas were provided to refugees born in Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. Of the top ten counties Australian refugees are from, only 3 are counties outside the Middle East, These include Myanmar, Fiji and Egypt.

With so many refugees arriving in Australia from the Middle East, it comes as no surprise that a majority of the funding promised by the Prime Minister will go towards refugees from counties of first asylum rather than those from Central America. A $220 Million Syrian humanitarian assistance package was also announced recently which is not included in the further funding by Mr Turnbull.

Since the announcement, refugee support groups have called for further details from the Prime Minister which has so far gone unanswered.

Speaking to AAP, Amnesty International Australia refugee campaigner Ming Yu Hah said he was skeptical if this is the right move for Australia and its refugees.

“The first question is what is the purpose of the program and will it provide protection to more people who urgently need it or is it a way for the US to put to the sideline people they could be helping themselves”.

Refugees arriving at the Costa Rican resettlement centre are predominantly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. The refugees fled their home countries due to rising violence, poverty and organised crime. Refugees fleeing the Middle East however, seek refugee from war zones.

Although reasons refugees flee their home countries vary and over cross between individual cases, there is a definite difference in situations between the Middle East and Central America.

Dr Robert Mason is a Lecturer in Migration and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research focuses on the histories of migration and multiculturalism in Australia and is particularly interested in the legacy of the Spanish Portuguese empires in Asia and the Pacific.

“The situation in Central America is quite different to the conflict in the Middle East. It is caused by gang related violence in El Salvador that is spilling over into neighboring countries such as Guatemala and Honduras. Women are fearful for their children, who might be forced to join the gangs or be killed by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Corruption is widespread among many in the police and local politicians, so those who speak out are in great danger. Governments have tried to stamp out the violence by responding in an authoritative manner, but this has only escalated the violence as gangs retaliate. The region now has the highest homicide rate in the world” Dr Mason said.

As result of refugees arriving from different environments, Australian refugee support groups will need to supply the correct mental health services to all of the arriving refugees. But with such little information from Mr Turnbull at the moment, support groups can only prepare for the arriving refugees based upon prior experiences with Central American refugees and what these refugee’s needs are in theory.

“Australia receives a diverse cohort of refugees, but it tends to prefer people who have existing connections with people already living here. These existing communities can then assist with supporting new arrivals. There is a lack of Spanish-speaking capacity among Humanitarian Settlement Services, and few complex case managers specialise in the area” Dr Mason explained.

“Police liaison officers are also largely unaware of the context from which these groups flee. Language and cultural training will be required to understand the social and economic needs of the new arrivals. Few of them expected to come to Australia, and most had hoped to be reunited with family in the USA. Since Spanish is widely used in the USA, they would not have expected to have to learn English as rapidly as will be required in Australia. Some awareness of this will be needed from settlement service providers”

With no knowledge yet of how many refugees or when any refugees will arrive from Central America, Australian Reufgee support groups might be forced to organise appropriate measures and resources for the refugees arrival in short notice.

But Dr Mason is confident that Australia will rise to the occasion. “Australia is one of the most successful countries in the world for settling refugees, so the capacity and good-will is certainly present”.

Photo: Tayla Swales

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