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NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors
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© STARTTS/ David Maurice Smith

Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Trauma

Refugees

Refugees are people forced to flee their homes because of persecution in the context of organised violence.  People with refugee experiences have often experienced significant human inflicted pain and suffering, including human rights abuses.

According to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees 1951 (the Refugees Convention) and the Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees 1967, a ‘refugee’ as any person who has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of their:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • Nationality
  • Membership of a particular social group
  • Political opinion

The person must be outside their country of nationality or the country they normally live in. The person must be unable or unwilling to return because of the fear of persecution.

The UNHCR estimates that there were 26.4 million refugees in the world in 2020.

Syria was the leading country of origin, generating 6.7 million refugees, followed by  Venezuela (4.0 million displaced abroad), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million) and Myanmar (1.1 million)  Most refugees were located in neighbouring countries such as: Turkey, Columbia, Pakistan, Uganda, and Germany (UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2020, June 2021)

Traumatic experiences of refugees

Refugees and people from refugee-like backgrounds may have been through many traumatic experiences, including torture, as a result of the actions of other human beings in the context of war and persecution that could have a long-term traumatic impact.

Some of these experiences include Systematic State Terrorism, torture, bombings, killings, kidnappings, sexual assault, detention, disappearances, harassment, being forced to flee; deprivation of food, shelter, health care; loss of family, friends, community, safety, home, possessions, routine, schooling, employment, and control over their lives.

Some refugees can spend prolonged periods in difficult conditions in refugee camps or living in the community without status in countries of asylum.

Systematic State Terrorism (SST)

Systematic State Terrorism involves terrorising the whole population through systematic actions carried out by the state such as the military and security forces.

The state systematically harasses, pressures, labels and morally discredits certain groups, while randomly carrying out events such as mass executions, disappearances, spectacular raids and torture.

This is to keep the population in a state of fear, disconnected from each other, unable to organise any opposition to the regime, with no alternative but to comply with the imposed political options (Martin Baro, 1989).

Torture

The United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) is an international treaty that mandates an absolute prohibition of torture worldwide. Article 1 of this convention states that:

… ‘torture’ means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

Anyone can be a victim of torture and those most likely to be perpetrators of torture include: Prison officers/ detention staff, the police, the military, paramilitary forces and state controlled anti guerilla forces. Perpetrators may also include health professionals, legal professionals, co-detainees acting with the approval or on the orders of public officials, death squads, opposition forces and the general population in a civil war situation.

Torture aims to break down the humanity, dignity and self-respect of the individual. Fear is an essential element of torture. When torture is used, a whole society, not just the individual who is being tortured, lives in fear. Other members of society are afraid that it will also happen to them.

In this way, torture is a tool of social control used by a system that rules individuals and societies through fear.
Common forms of torture used include:

  • Sensory and sleep deprivation
  • Electric shocks and burns
  • Psychological abuse; beatings
  • Sham executions
  • Sexual violence and rape
  • Near fatal immersion or suffocation
  • Being forced to watch loved ones being raped, killed or brutalised

Climate change and forced displacement

The term ‘Climate Refugee’ does not exist in international refugee law. It is more accurate to say a ‘Person displaced in the context of disasters and climate change’.

“Climate change is also driving displacement and increasing the vulnerability of those already forced to flee. Many are living in climate “hotspots” where they typically lack the resources to adapt to an increasingly inhospitable environment. The dynamics of poverty, food insecurity, climate change, conflict and displacement are increasingly interconnected and mutually reinforcing, driving more and more people to search for safety and security.” UNHCR June 2021

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

As a signatory to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Australia has accepted well over 880,000 people under its Humanitarian Program since around the time of World War II.

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program is currently made up of four components:

  1. The Refugee Program involves people being resettled to Australia after being granted a visa overseas.
  2. The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) involves people being resettled to Australia after being granted a visa overseas.
  3. The Community Support Program (CSP) provides the possibility for people and business in Australia to support a person in humanitarian need to come to Australia.
  4. The onshore program offers permanent protection for people who seek asylum in Australia and have arrived on a valid visa (often a student or tourist visa) and are found to be refugees. Since September 2013, people who have arrived to Australia by boat or without a valid visa have been have been subject to a range of different processes (including Offshore Processing and Temporary Visas.)

In the October 2020, the Federal Government announced that it will reduce the total annual Refugee and Humanitarian Program intake from 18,750 to 13,750 places per year.

Learn more about Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

Australia’s response to people seeking asylum

A person seeking asylum (asylum seeker) is a person who has left their country of origin and has applied for protection as a refugee to a government or the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 Refugees Convention and 1967 Protocol, everyone has a right to seek asylum from persecution, and it is the most common way people receive refugee protection around from world.

The majority of people who apply protection when already in Australia arrive by plane with a valid visa, such as a student or tourist visa. They are allowed to live freely in the community on this visa or a bridging visa, while their claims for protection are processed. This can at times be a lengthy process. If found to be refugees, people who arrive by plane with a valid visa, are granted a permanent protection visa.

It is common for people seeking asylum to travel through unauthorised channels without travel documents. The Refugee Convention makes it clear that people who travel by any method are afforded the right to seek asylum and countries who sign the Refugee Convention are obligated not to return people before considering these claims.

People who arrive by boat seeking asylum in Australia are treated very differently to those who are resettled as refugees, or those who seek asylum after arriving by plane with a valid visa. Over many years and consecutive governments, Australia has introduced a number of punitive policies to deter people from arriving by boat. These have included routinely holding people in detention centres, sending people to Nauru or Papua New Guinea to be processed and held indefinitely, and reintroducing Temporary Protection without the possibility of permanent residence or family reunification.

There are currently a large number of people in the community in Australia, known as the Legacy Caseload, who arrived to Australia by boat and have been subjected to Australia’s deterrence policies. A large number of this cohort have been granted Temporary Protection with one of two visas: the TPV (Temporary Protection Visa) and SHEV (Safe Haven Enterprise Visa), meaning they have to reapply for protection in 3-5 years.

Bridging Visa holders and TPV/SHEV visa holders may often face a number of stressors and challenges in the community including ongoing uncertainty and limbo, lack of access to government support services and barriers to accessing employment.

For more comprehensive and updated information about current policies affecting refugees and people seeking asylum please refer to the Refugee Council of Australia.

People Seeking Asylum and Temporary Visa holders in Australia will often be in greater need of assistance accessing support services because of their ineligibility for many government supports and other factors that make them vulnerable. This may be legal support, casework or material aid support.

Supporting people from refugee backgrounds

STARTTS recognises that people from refugee backgrounds in Australia often sit in the middle of a complex interaction between:

  • The impact of the traumatic experiences they have been through (violence, deprivation and loss)
  • The challenges of resettling in a new country (learning the language, understanding the system etc.)

The normal life challenges that we all face (relationships, illness, employment, ageing etc.)

Additionally, the socio-political climate and services in Australia, and international events such as renewed conflict in the country of origin, also impact on the refugee experience.

STARTTS recognises that because of the experiences and current challenges that people from refugee backgrounds may experience in Australia, it is essential that they have access to services that promote trauma recovery and resilience, and that supports and services are delivered in a way that is culturally safe. Supports provided should always recognise and respect the cultural identities of others, and safely meet their needs, expectations and rights.

To find out more about refugees in Australia, and about working with people from refugee backgrounds please consider STARTTS’ workshop, Core Concepts in Working with People from Refugee Backgrounds.

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