Supporting people fleeing conflict

A friend of mine just got his kids to safety. They will be able to sleep again. Many others are still on the run or staying put in difficult circumstances.

Now these kids were in Ukraine, but it could also have been Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Yemen, or several other places.

Globally, well over 80 million people have been forced to leave their homes due to conflict and human rights violations.

The Australian news has shown a narrative of solidarity with refugees in the past few days. This is heart-warming to see and much needed to support those who are affected.

However, there is another side: Australia has a history of detaining people who are seeking asylum. In particular, those arriving by boat.

People seeking asylum by boat have been ‘processed’ offshore on two Pacific islands – Nauru and Papua New Guinea – and if determined to be genuine refugees, they have not been allowed to resettle in Australia. Many have endured multiple years of immigration detention.  

The concept of moral injury – the experience of your beliefs of what is right and wrong being transgressed – has gained attention in the trauma literature recently. Being exposed to moral wrongs, or even forced to participate in them, is a terrible type of injury.

Our team wanted to better understand experiences of moral injury and mental health related to immigration detention on Nauru.

It is difficult to speak with the people who are directly affected but we were able to interview 13 refugees who had been medically evacuated from Nauru to Australia. On average they had been detained on Nauru for 14 months, though there was quite a wide range (1 month to 3 years).

We derived the following main themes from the interviews:

  1. The risk at home and the expectation of getting protection as main reasons to flee to Australia
  2. The experience of deprivation, a lack of agency, violence, and dehumanization after arrival
  3. The feeling of being irreparably damaged as a result

One participant said:

“In my country they torture your body but in Australia they kill your mind.”

It seemed to convey the above three themes in combination. The participants appeared to make a distinction between Australian decision makers versus the Australian people, still feeling a connection with (and experiencing support by) the latter.

The full description of the findings has just been made available open access in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology.

It also includes a range of quotes by the interviewees. I’m sharing two, from different participants, here. They are confronting and important (as are the others that I’m not copying here):  

“We feel as an animal. It’s not what they do to humans. That time, I felt they were looking at me as an animal. But when they transferred me to Australia, I thought, no, I thought wrong because the people have a very nice behaviour with pets. When I went to the shop for the first time, I saw lots of food for dogs or cats. They have got toilets, they have got doctors. They have everything they need. So, we are smaller than that for the people who work in the detention camp or government.”

“If you don’t want to give me a life, okay kill me and shoot me and I will die one time. Why are you killing my brain? Why are you cutting my heart, every single day? When somebody uses a knife and you die, and when somebody kill you every single day, kill your brain and your mind, it’s totally different. It is better you die one time.”

These interviews show a need to make sure that all asylum seekers are met with safe conditions for their stay, ethical procedures to determine their status, and proper support.

While our very first priority should be to end violence and wars, for those who are already affected, we need to make sure they are not further harmed and given the opportunity to peacefully live their life and contribute to society.

If you are keen to support people who are fleeing conflict right now, there are multiple things that you can do. For mental health professionals, the European Society for Traumatic Stress has put together a helpful overview of suggestions. They are written for the situation in Ukraine but are just as applicable to those affected by other conflicts.


Full reference:

Passardi, S., Hocking, D., Morina, N., Sundram, S., & Alisic, E.  (2022). Moral injury related to immigration detention on Nauru: A qualitative study, European Journal of Psychotramatology, 13, 1.

Photo by Simon Maage on Unsplash

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