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Refugees with insecure visas experience more trauma and depression: study

People on temporary visas are more likely to have experienced trauma, but a new long-term study shows they’re ready to contribute.

The years Mazin Nawaf lived in Australia on an insecure protection visa severely tested his mental health.

Mazin was born in Iraq and arrived on a student visa in 2013. He sought asylum the following year and was granted a temporary protection visa.

“When I was an asylum seeker I felt depressed, isolated, anxiety. I lost concentration, was weak physically, felt worthless, hopeless, over emotional and loved to cry and be hugged.  

“I felt like an innocent criminal who was accused of crimes I never did, and waiting for the judgement that could be execution or free.”

Mazin’s reaction to living with uncertainly is far from unique, as a new study looking at the experience of refugees and people seeking asylum shows.

Negative impact of visa uncertainty 

Refugees and people seeking asylum with insecure visas – like Mazin’s protection visa, and bridging visas – report significantly greater post-traumatic stress disorder and depression symptoms than those with permanent protection, a new long-term study has shown.

The Australian study found people with uncertainty around their visas are also nearly 2.5 times more likely to report suicidal intent.

Over three years, more than 1000 refugees and people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia since January 2011 from Arabic, Farsi, Tamil and English-speaking backgrounds took part in the study, undertaken in partnership between UNSW Sydney, Australian Red Cross, Settlement Services International (SSI), and Phoenix Australia at the University of Melbourne.

Importance of certainty when recovering from trauma

“This evidence indicates to all of us in Australia and around the world – governments, community organisations, support services and policy makers – how we can keep people safe and recognise and support their contributions to our community, as well as the importance of certainty for those recovering from significant trauma,” says  Red Cross Head of Migration Support Programs, Vicki Mau.

“The findings confirm our experience working with refugees and people seeking asylum. People on insecure visas make a substantial social contribution to the Australian community, despite the mental health challenges that many face.”

Surprising second key finding of the study

Interestingly, the study’s second key finding revealed that despite having more severe psychological symptoms on average, refugees with insecure visas were significantly more socially engaged and connected to the Australian community than those with secure visas.

People on insecure visas were more likely to volunteer in their community, be part of a sports club and be involved in charities and community groups.

“This suggests that these refugees are forming social connections to help overcome the impact of their pre-migration experience to make a substantial contribution to the Australian community,” says study lead author Associate Professor Angela Nickerson, Director of the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program at UNSW.

The researchers found refugees with insecure visas who were part of social groups had reduced suicidal intent. Those with insecure visas who were part of fewer groups showed greater depression symptoms and had greater suicidal intent than those with secure visas and low group membership.

“This could mean facilitating active engagement in social groups for those with insecure visas is associated with lower psychological distress – highlighting the key role of social engagement in influencing mental health among insecure visa holders,” A/Prof Nickerson says.

Australian citizenship changes Mazin's life

Mazin Nawaf’s experience show the stark difference visa security can bring to someone's life.

Fast forward to today and Mazin has graduated from Griffith University with a Master Degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice.

He works as a case manager with Red Cross and in November 2019 Mazin became an Australian citizen.

“Now after becoming an Aussie Citizen on 22/11/2019, I consider this date as my birthday and will celebrate it every year instead of my real birthday.”

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