An uncertain future: recognizing the experience of Australia’s refugees

MATTHEW WOTHERSPOON

Poverty, famine, disease. It’s an image antonymous with first-world life. But for refugees who have been forced to settle into a first-world country, it’s an all too familiar experience.

For many refugees however, while the journey to a new a country may seem exciting, their adjustment to a new way of life can render a stressful period. The task of learning a new language, forming new social connections and obtaining employment skills are all things not easily acquired.

Eve*, is one of the thousands of refugees who have entered Australia since 2010, and just like most, was given the task of assimilating into a country where people are of different colour and speak another language.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that of the 65.3 million displaced people in the world, nearly a third are under the age of 18.

Together with her three siblings, Eve applied for Australia’s immigration program while living in a refugee camp in Uganda, after fleeing from cultural conflict in her home country of Congo in 2008.

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A refugee camp supported by UNHCR in Uganda. Source: UNHCR Innovation

After spending two years in a refugee camp under the guardianship of her dad’s brother, enduring strenuous hours of physical examination and questioning, they were finally granted entrance to Australia.

“Everyday, we would have to wait hours in scorching heat just to sign papers and get blood tests done – all behind the backdrop of children suffering from malaria and starvation,” Eve recalled.

“This all happened after my dad woke us up early one morning to tell us our mother was kidnapped, raped and abused.

“At that point, we were introduced to our step family whom we were reunited with several years later in Australia.”

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Six years after migrating to Australia from Uganda, Eve (second from right) and her siblings now live with their step family in Brisbane, Queensland. Source: Facebook

Unfortunately, for refugees like Eve, travelling to a new country in search of a safe haven means leaving their motherland, friends and family, which contributes to the painfully difficult task of assimilating into a culture dissimilar to their own.

“At first I thought everything was going to be perfect, but it was hard having to adjust to an Australian way of life while being surrounded by different colour people.”

“Finding work, new friends, and deciding on a ‘career’ have all been things that have been hard on me since I arrived.”

It’s the series of hardships associated with displacement on top of enduring life in refugee camps that makes refugees more prone to developing mental illness, according to a report conducted by the National Mental Health Commission (NMHC) in 2012.

“The mental health of refugees and asylum seekers is negatively affected by pre-migration trauma, long term detention, temporary protection, restriction of access to services, human rights violation, exposure to threats of different kinds and fear for family remaining in country of origin,” the report said.

From being separated from her biological parents at a young age, to moving countries because of cultural and religious difference; these are all factors that Eve believes played a part in her experience of depression and self harm.

“Living a life without a mother and daughter relationship, not seeing family for years on end, living in a country that’s not your home. It all built up,” Eve said.

“Everyday used to feel like I was fighting a battle with myself, which would lead me to self-harm.

“Then when I turned 16, I attempted suicide because of the thoughts that were going on in my head. I just couldn’t control them.”

However, even with various studies explaining why refugees experience mental health problems like depression, self-harm and PTSD, it is still common for the mental health of refugees to deteriorate after the first 12 months spent in Australia, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS).

In fact, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reported in 2014 that one quarter of suicide related deaths in were of Australians who were born overseas, posing the question as to how governmental institutions can address the issue of mental health problems with refugees.

But while many obstacles exist for refugees that assimilate into Australia, social worker for Queensland Health Angela Worthington, who has had extensive experience working with refugees, suggests although there is a lack of services available to refugees resettling in Australia, intervention of mental health problems can still be made possible.

“Many women become separated from their partners during immigration, which normally results in increased stress, particularly if they’re taking care of children independently,” Ms Worthington said.

“The children are also more at risk of developing mental health issues like PTSD and anxiety disorders due to early exposure to traumatic events.

“If someone has access to medical and social services, while maintaining social connectedness, assimilation and treatment of mental health problems can become a lot easier.

“Unfortunately, there is still a considerable shortage of mental health services that are available to assimilated refugees.

“Hopefully there will be greater governmental investment in developing tailored programs and treatments for refugees in coming years.”

Now 19-years-old, Eve finds solace in knowing that in less than two years, she will be able to bring her biological mother and her younger half-brother to Australia.
For her, the road to a better life isn’t synonymous with that of first world luxuries, but one of family connection that some living in first-world countries take for granted.

For more information about mental health support for refugees, you can visit the Refugee Health Network of Australia (RHeaNA) website.

For further mental health support, you can also visit beyondblue’s website or phone them on 1300 22 4636.

* Name has been changed for reason of confidentiality.  

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