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Refugee Realities: The View from Australia

by Nick Haslam, University of Melbourne

Australia’s recent treatment of people seeking its protection has been a cause for national shame. The country has a fairly generous system for resettling offshore refugees, but the policy regime confronting unauthorized arrivals who seek asylum has until recently been starkly different. Under the ‘mandatory detention’ policy, asylum seekers have been warehoused in prison-like detention centers, often in remote desert locations and often for periods of years. Under the ‘Pacific Solution’, asylum seekers intercepted before reaching the mainland have been detained in pitiful conditions on the tiny island nation of Nauru, so that Australia had no obligation to resettle those found to be refugees. Under the ‘Temporary Protection Visa’ (TPV) system, detainees found to be refugees have been released into the community while awaiting a decision on permanent residency, but denied access to language classes, housing assistance, refugee support payments, and rights to family reunion and to return to Australia if they traveled overseas. TPVs enforced a state of anxious limbo and official neglect. The position of people subject to ‘bridging visas’, having sought asylum after arriving with a valid visa, was even harsher: they were often denied access to employment, housing, medical assistance, and schooling. Left to live on thin air, they often waited more than five years for their final refugee determination.

 These policies are unquestionably punitive and draconian. They aimed not only to restrict access to Australia for people seeking asylum here, but also to deter others from doing the same. Arguably, they were also designed to get public opinion behind a conservative government eager to appear tough on matters of border protection and the war on terror. In this, they were quite successful. Although activists and some of the smaller political parties passionately opposed Australia’s asylum seeker policies, they enjoyed widespread public support. The inhumanity of our treatment of our asylum seekers – tiny in proportion to the global refugee population and small in comparison to the number seeking protection in other counties – was either ignored or actively endorsed. Mercifully, a new Labor government elected in 2007 has overturned most of its predecessor’s policies, and public opinion has swung away from its former harshness.

 My own work addresses the global refugee crisis but also takes place within this local context. Together with several collaborators, and under the auspices of the Researchers for Asylum Seekers group in Melbourne, I have done research on two dimensions of the refugee condition. First, we have investigated refugee mental health and its determinants. Second, we have examined the underpinnings of public opinion about refugees and asylum seekers, and in particular, the ways in which they are seen as less than human. Many other Australian researchers have made significant contributions to these two questions, notably Derrick Silove and Zachary Steel’s work on the psychiatric consequences of detention and TPVs, and numerous studies by social psychologists Martha Augoustinos, Anne Pedersen, and Winnifred Louis on attitudes towards asylum seekers.

Refugee mental health

My work on refugee mental health was carried out with Matt Porter, a former graduate student in the USA. After completing a meta-analysis of refugee mental health in the context of the former Yugoslavia, we decided to broaden our scope to include empirical studies of refugee mental health in any conflict area and at any time. Our meta-analysis (Porter & Haslam, 2005) reviewed 59 studies, dated from 1959 to 2002 and conducted with more than 67,000 participants from around the globe, in which a refugee or internally displaced group was compared with one or more control groups on measures of mental health and well-being. Our aim was not simply to quantify the magnitude of the psychiatric impact of forced displacement, but to learn something about the factors that influence it. In particular, we came to the study with some skepticism about the prevailing view, draw from the orthodox life-events model of stress and coping, that the refugee predicament can be understood as a reaction to a discrete traumatic event that naturally wanes with the passage of time. In our view, for example, refugees face chronic and multiple stresses, including social marginalization, material disadvantage, loss of social supports, acculturative stress, and cultural bereavement, and the effects of these stresses extend beyond the narrowly post-traumatic. In addition, we believed that the psychiatric effects of forced displacement are likely to depend on the social and political context in which refugees find themselves.

 With these convictions in mind, we asked whether the magnitude of the psychiatric effects of displacement depended on pre-displacement contextual factors such as refugees’ age, gender, social class, and education levels, and on post-displacement factors such as the quality of housing and economic opportunities available to them, whether they had been displaced internally or beyond their national borders, whether they had been repatriated, and whether the conflict that drove them away had later been resolved. These factors and many others were examined statistically as moderators of the effect sizes obtained in the primary studies that we analyzed.

 Our findings have clear policy relevance. With respect to pre-displacement factors, mental health outcomes were relatively poor for refugees who were older, female, and of higher educational and socio-economic status. Education and class may not confer resilience, but instead produce a greater sense of loss among refugees. Post-displacement factors were also of great importance. Worse psychiatric outcomes were associated with lack of private and permanent housing and lack of economic opportunities. Externally displaced persons were better off than those who were internally displaced or repatriated, a finding that runs contrary to the common humanitarian emphasis on return. Finally, refugee mental health was better when the initiating conflict had been resolved than when it was ongoing. Multivariate analyses indicated that these diverse findings can be distilled into three main dimensions: the well-being of refugees is enabled by providing them with material security, minimizing their loss of cultural capital, and maintaining their safe distance from the conflict.

 It may be unsurprising to learn that refugees are better off when they are materially secure, protected from a sense of loss, and given safe sanctuary. However, the findings of our study show that providing these things to refugees is not simply the right thing to do morally, but is also likely to minimize the psychological damage they suffer and to improve their well-being. The study also shows how to do the opposite: make refugees materially insecure by restricting their economic opportunities and housing them institutionally; make them feel their loss keenly by rendering them destitute and not allowing them to work productively; banish feelings of safety by giving them only temporary status and threatening repatriation. This is what recent Australian policies have done to asylum seekers, and the psychological cost has been terrible. With the great majority of asylum seekers eventually being granted refugee status and allowed to resettle, we can only wonder what enduring consequences these policies will have for some of our most vulnerable new citizens.

Attitudes towards refugees

Our second line of work has been on public perceptions of refugees. Other psychologists and survey researchers have explored many dimensions of these attitudes in Australia. For instance, we know that anti-asylum seeker prejudice is associated with authoritarianism, lower levels of education, acceptance of a variety of myths (e.g., that asylum seekers are terrorists), nationalism (but not patriotism), perceived norms (e.g., belief that hostility to asylum seekers is the social consensus), and perceptions of concrete threat (e.g., fear of economic competition) and illegitimacy (e.g., asylum seekers are economic opportunists). We believe that another aspect of this prejudice is the dehumanization of refugees and asylum seekers.

Dehumanization can take many forms (Haslam, 2006), but in this context I suggest two forms are primary. First, asylum seekers are often portrayed and thought about as a faceless or undifferentiated mass, and referred to by objectifying labels such as “cargo” and “flotsam”. This view of asylum seekers as undifferentiated objects was actively encouraged by government policy of keeping them hidden in detention centers and the explicit directive to ensure that no “humanising photographs” of them should be taken. Second, asylum seekers were often portrayed as animal-like, accused of being bestial, coarse, and primitive. Evidence of this perception of refugees as barbaric has been obtained in Canadian research by Victoria Esses and her colleagues (Esses et al., 2008). Work conducted by my student Ali Cheetham (2007) found that undergraduates who professed favorable attitudes towards refugees and multiculturalism nevertheless implicitly associated refugees with animals to a greater extent than citizens, and showed an automatic negative bias against them. A subtle or unconscious dehumanization of refugees and asylum seekers may therefore occur even among people who lack explicit prejudice.
 Of course, it is very easy for empirical findings such as these to remain confined to the pages of academic journals. Recognizing this, we have recently published an edited book (Lusher & Haslam, 2007) which attempts to present the situation of Australian asylum seekers to a wider audience. Our book contains a great diversity of voices, ranging from academics (in history, media studies, psychiatry, psychology, social work and sociolinguistics), activists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, writers, and asylum seekers themselves. By enlisting several prominent Australians to write for us, including a former Prime Minister and some prominent media figures, we increased the book’s visibility. We commend it to anyone who has an interest in refugee issues, and relish the opportunity to take our academic work out of the lab and into the imperfect world of policy and public opinion that lies beyond.




Cheetham, A. (2007). The dehumanisation of refugees. Unpublished thesis, University of Melbourne.
Esses, V. M., Veenvliet, S., Hodson, G., & Mihic, L. (2008). Justice, morality, and the dehumanization of refugees. Social Justice Research, 21, 4-25.

Haslam, N. (2006). Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 252-264.

Lusher, D., & Haslam, N. (Eds.) (2007). Yearning to breathe free: Seeking asylum in Australia. Sydney: Federation Press.

Porter, M., & Haslam, N. (2005). Predisplacement and postdisplacement factors associated with mental health of refugees and internally displaced persons: A meta-analysis. JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association, 294, 602-612.



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