Human cost of offshore processing is too high, psychologists warn

Substantially increasing Australia’s refugee intake as a matter of urgency is a positive step that could help prevent vulnerable people boarding unsafe boats and ending up in remote offshore locations, according to the Australian Psychological Society (APS).

“From a mental health perspective, if refugees can access protection in a timely way in places like Indonesia, without resorting to putting their lives at risk or facing years in limbo, unnecessary distress will be avoided,” said psychologist Heather Gridley, a co-author of the APS submission made to the Government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers last month.

Therefore the Australian Psychological Society welcomes the proposed increase in the refugee intake to at least 20,000 as the most significant component of the panel’s recommendations, and urges the Government to immediately implement the proposed increases.

“The proposal to process refugees in centres in PNG and Nauru is very concerning,” said Ms Gridley. “Subjecting people to an indefinite period of time offshore will only heighten anxiety. We know from previous experience that prolonged refugee processing leads to distress and uncertainty, and has been clearly linked to a rapid decline in mental health.”

In its submission, one of 300 made to the panel, the APS recommended that the Government prioritise policies that protect human rights and minimise psychological harm: ‘Policies that provide refugees with viable alternatives to boarding boats in the first place would provide more durable solutions for asylum seekers and refugees in the region.’

“Given that immigration detention has in itself been found to have a distinct, adverse effect on mental health and wellbeing, we are concerned that any mental health services put in place will be seriously compromised,” she said. “The remoteness of offshore locations, as well as their limited service systems, further restricts detainees’ access to quality mental health and other services.”

Ms Gridley added that the new family reunion provisions also needed to be examined closely to ensure that this policy shift would serve the intended purpose.

She said: “We don’t want to inadvertently create a system that encourages whole families to risk their lives coming by boat, or where it becomes harder to access family reunification.

“Psychological research has highlighted the importance of family to individual mental health and wellbeing, and has specifically identified that family support is a strong predictor of long term positive adjustment and resilience among refugees and asylum seekers settling in a new country.”

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Notes to editors: For a copy of the APS submission to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, please contact the APS media team as below.

For media enquiries please email media@psychology.org.au or call, Rebecca Matthews on 03 8662 3358, Karen Coghlan on 03 8662 6638 or Judith Heywood on 03 8662 3301. Find us on Twitter:  @APS_Media.


The APS is the largest professional organisation for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 20,000 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to people’s lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.