The impact of human rights-related stressors during the refugee determination process on mental health in the context of sustained displacement



This project was part of the Australian Human Rights Institute's 2021 seed funding round, receiving $5,741.00.


More than 79 million people have been forcibly displaced around the world, fleeing war, violence, persecution and other human rights violations. The refugee experience is unique in that these traumatic experiences often involve targeted, systemic human rights violations, such as torture, rape, and threated violence. These experiences can leave refugees with a strong sense of injustice, which has been linked to high rates of psychiatric disorders, as well as complex psychological responses such as anger, humiliation, feelings of betrayal and social impairment that can persist after resettlement.

It is notable, however, that experiences of injustice can often occur long after a refugee leaves her or his country of origin. In particular, the post-migration context can include additional experiences of injustice that may compound persecution-related trauma that occurred in the country of origin.

Little is known, however, about the specific stressors in a refugee transit context that give rise to feelings of injustice, or how this sense of injustice relates to refugee mental health and wellbeing. Furthermore, as many refugees wait for years in these contexts, there is an urgent need to understand how refugees cope in these environments, and which strategies are most effective for improving their mental, physical, emotional and social wellbeing.

This project proposes to directly address this gap in knowledge by identifying human rights-related stressors experienced by refugees in a transit context (i.e. right to work, food, housing, medical care, education, etc.), investigate how these stressors are linked to feelings of injustice, how this injustice further impacts mental health and wellbeing, and what strategies can be used to cope in such environments.

This will be achieved by three key aims:

  1. To identify human rights-related stressors for refugees in a transit country, specifically Indonesia.
  2. To investigate associations between human rights-related stressors, feelings of injustice and outcomes across mental, physical, emotional and social wellbeing domains.
  3. To learn which coping strategies are associated with improved mental health wellbeing for refugees during transit.

Ultimately, this project will lead to novel information about which aspects of the transit context impact on the mental health and wellbeing of refugees, and the most effective strategies for managing distress associated with these experiences during transit. These identified stressors and coping strategies will be shared with community organisations and service providers who are partnering on this project, to build resilience in and support advocacy for the communities they assist. As millions of refugees around the world live and wait in similar transit contexts where basic human rights are not met, this project also has worldwide implications for service providers and policy makers to improve the lives of refugees in sustained displacement.

2022 project update

Seed funding was used to facilitate and conduct a series of focus group discussions with Indonesia-based refugee leaders and representatives. Discussion topics included human-rights related injustices faced by refugees in Indonesia, such as lack of access to work, education and health care and lack of transparency around the refugee determination process.

Participants were asked the impact of these injustices on their communities as well as example of how people were coping with these experiences. Transcripts from the discussions have been written up and are in the process of being analysed. Outcomes from the data analysis will be used to write a paper to be submitted and published later in 2022.