Here in Australia, hardly a week goes by without a story about asylum seekers, also known as ‘boat people’ or ‘queue jumpers’ (NOT my terms), arriving in Australian waters by boat. A few months ago, we saw horrific images on one such boat being destroyed by heavy seas off Christmas Island. This week, the High Court has ruled that the government cannot send asylum seekers – including unaccompanied minors – to Malaysia, as had been proposed (see ABC’s news report here).
Having worked with refugees who were survivors of torture and trauma, I have heard some of the horrific stories that were literally about life and death. I was left in absolutely no doubt that if I was in their shoes, I would sell everything I had and pay whatever it took to get out of that country immediately to save the lives of my family. When we think about trauma in refugees, it is overwhelming: the pre-migration factors that led to them having to flee (persecution, violence, war), the migration factors (journeying on a small, overcrowded boat with no idea how long it will last or whether you’ll survive) and post-migration factors – such as being held in detention and the difficulties of settling in a foreign country.
It is these post-migration traumas that we can help with. It is awful enough for adults, but children are especially vulnerable. Detention increases the exposure of these children to trauma, robs them of developmental opportunities, and increases their risk of mental health disorders.
The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (of which I am a member) has a position statement on the detention of children that summarises the issues. The High Court’s decision is encouraging, but we still have a way to go in this country in making sure we contribute in a positive way to the mental health of children and families who seek asylum.