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Learn about Torture and Trauma

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

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).


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

Read more about torture on the websites of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims.


A trauma reaction is a common response to an abnormal event where a person experiences fear, horror or helplessness due to witnessing or being the target of actual or threatened death or injury.

Every person will have an individual trauma response based on the type and severity of the experience, their age, gender, resilience and other psychosocial factors. Trauma can disrupt a person’s health and everyday living.

Trauma affects individuals on the biological, psychological and social levels. Some of these impacts include:

  • Changes in brain structure, function and physiology; Hyper-arousal
  • Injuries, illnesses, chronic pain, psychosomatic issues
  • Anxiety, sadness, fear, anger, irritability, guilt, shame
  • Intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, memory and concentration problems
  • Post-traumatic symptoms including PTSD
  • Changed sense of self, beliefs, loss of trust, disempowerment, loss of self-esteem
  • Difficulties with personal relationships; social withdrawal

Trauma not only impacts on individuals; it also impacts on families, social support networks, refugee communities, and Australian society and institutions.

Families may be affected in many ways such as:

  • Loss of family members
  • Breakup of nuclear and extended families, and  support systems
  • Changes in relationships and roles
  • Attachment relationships altered
  • Intergenerational and gender conflict
  • Social isolation and marginalisation
  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms, e.g. domestic violence, alcohol

Community structures and institutions and the fabric of society in the home country may have broken down as a result of organised violence.

Communities can be destroyed by creating a state of chronic terror and alarm, disrupting core attachments to families and friends, and religious and cultural systems. Renewed conflict in the country of origin can affect the whole community.

Problems can be brought with refugee communities, such as internal conflict and fragmentation, polarisation and distrust amongst each other and of the authorities.

Refugee communities have an important role in supporting their own community members and in helping each other settle into their new environment.

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