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Mental distress and human rights of asylum seekers

Emma Jean Campbell (School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia and Institute for Urban Indigenous Health, Brisbane, Australia)
Emily Jean Steel (School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia)

Journal of Public Mental Health

ISSN: 1746-5729

Article publication date: 15 June 2015




This paper studies the experiences of asylum seekers in Australia. The purpose of this paper is to explore the relationship between mental wellbeing, living conditions, and Australia’s detention policies in light of human rights.


Using grounded theory, data were collected via observations, semi-structured interviews, key-informant interviews, and document analysis. Participants included seven asylum seekers and three professionals working with them.


In light of a human rights framework, this paper reports on the mental distress suffered by asylum seekers in detention, the environments of constraint in which they live, and aspects of detention centre policy that contribute to these environments. The findings highlight a discrepancy between asylum seekers’ experiences under immigration detention policy and Australia’s human rights obligations.

Research limitations/implications

This research indicates human rights violations for asylum seekers in detention in Australia. This research project involved a small number of participants and recommends systemic review of the policy and practices that affect asylum seekers’ mental health including larger numbers of participants. Consideration is made of alternatives to detention as well as improving detention centre conditions. The World Health Organization’s Quality Rights Tool Kit might provide the basis for a framework to review Australia’s immigration detention system with particular focus on the poor mental wellbeing of asylum seekers in detention.


This study links international human rights law and Australian immigration detention policies and practices with daily life experiences of suffering mental distress within environments of constraint and isolation. It identifies asylum seekers as a vulnerable population with respect to human rights and mental wellbeing. Of particular value is the inclusion of asylum seekers themselves in interviews.



The authors would like to thank the asylum seeker services and their clients who participated in this research. This research was conducted as part of the authors PhD and thanks goes to Dr Merrill Turpin and Dr Jean-Louis Durand for their feedback and guidance as supervisors.


Campbell, E.J. and Steel, E.J. (2015), "Mental distress and human rights of asylum seekers", Journal of Public Mental Health, Vol. 14 No. 2, pp. 43-55.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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