The health and human rights of refugees and asylum seekers are of key concern to psychologists, and other health professions, as well as to many members of the general public. Psychologists have long played a role in the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers through counselling, support and advocacy. The APS in particular has voiced concerns around the deleterious effects of immigration detention on the mental health and well-being of asylum seekers, particularly those who are already vulnerable, such as children, or those with pre-existing trauma or mental illness. This is particularly the case where detention occurs in offshore and remote locations. The APS has argued for the positive and accurate representation of refugees and refugee issues (e.g., in the media, by government), as this is linked to the successful settlement and wellbeing of refugees, while misrepresentations that demonise asylum seekers can seriously distort public debates on ‘border protection’ policies.

Key Points

  • The APS Code of Ethics (2007) mandates psychologists to respect and protect people’s human rights (General Principle A), avoid unfair discrimination (Standard A.1.1), demonstrate knowledge of the consequences of unfair discrimination (Standard A.1.2) and assist clients to address unfair discrimination (Standard A.1.3).
  • The vulnerability of people seeking asylum and the related likely incidence of mental health problems amongst refugees is based on specific risk factors related to exposure to loss and trauma both prior to and post arrival, and may be expressed in various ways. 
  • There is overwhelming evidence that detention has an independent, adverse effect on mental health, over and above any pre-existing illness or trauma. This is compounded when detention is offshore and in remote locations where there is little if no access to mental health and other services (including legal, medical and interpreting services), and where the ethical delivery of such services is seriously compromised.
  • Further harm is caused to asylum seekers who are issued with temporary visas or subjected to conditions that prolong the assessment of their refugee claims and/or restrict access to supports, work opportunities and services.
  • Positive and accurate representation of refugee issues in the media is critically important to combat myths and negative stereotypes around refugees and asylum seekers.
  • The presence of family can have a therapeutic effect on people who have survived traumatic experiences, and plays a pivotal role in providing emotional, physical and economic support to refugees upon resettlement.
  • Taking a stand against the destructive consequences of racism and xenophobia, for both populations and individuals, can mean making clear the adverse public health and mental health consequences of such prejudices, and identifying the personal stories and resilience of refugee communities and the contributions made by refugees to the broader community.

Position Statement

Review Paper


Media releases

Related Resources

  • The APS Refugee Issues and Psychology Interest Group was formed in 2012 and aims to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas about the psychological wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers in Australia, for discussion, peer contact, support and information sharing for psychologists interested in issues around refugee mental health and wellbeing, to liaise with like-minded groups whose aims are congruent with those of the APS, and to establish and contribute to partnerships, networks and coalitions that facilitate a multidisciplinary approach to enhancing the mental health and wellbeing of refugees and asylum seekers. Collaborating with those working directly with refugees, and with refugee communities themselves, is particularly important.
  • The APS contributed to the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and Trauma’s publication Promoting the engagement of interpreters in Victorian health services available
  • Researchers for Asylum Seekers:is a voluntary and non-profit group of predominantly psychologists concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers in Australia. Affiliated within the School of Behavioural Science, University of Melbourne, RAS aims to raise awareness of the plight of asylum seekers through forums, conferences, research and the distribution of information on asylum seeker issues.
  • Yearning to Breathe Free. This edited book is an initiative of RAS. The book's editors, psychologists Dean Lusher and Nick Haslam, aimed to present an overview of the historical, social and political contexts that have shaped Australia's recent treatment of asylum seekers, and its psychological and humanitarian consequences. Each section features introductory commentaries from prominent names such as Malcolm Fraser, Sir Gustav Nossal, and Lyn Allison.  Of particular interest to psychologists are the chapters on the effect of detention on brain function and mental health, and a chapter on the psychology of exclusion that examines attitudes towards asylum seekers. Copies in bookstores are hard to find, so the web is the best option:

Getting Involved

  • Psychologists wishing to support asylum seekers through volunteer counselling are in high demand. The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Victoria, for example, has a counselling program where asylum seekers who are unable to access any other mental health services can find support. ASRC provides training for volunteers who are experienced in trauma counselling.
  • The APS Refugee Issues and Psychology Interest Group provides a forum for psychologists working with refugees and asylum seekers to gain mutual support and provide a platform of advocacy around issues impacting on refugee wellbeing.
  • The APS Psychology and Cultures Interest Group focus on the provision of psychological services to the culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) population in Australia, including refugees, as well as promote culturally sensitive and appropriate psychological services and promote networking and peer support among psychologists, who offer psychological services to the CALD population.
  • Rural Australians for Refugees facilitate groups across Australia in almost 100 rural communities to provide advocacy and support to refugees and asylum seekers.