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Refugees and asylum seekers living in a state of uncertainty on insecure visas experience more mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, a new study looking at long-term wellbeing has revealed.

The cohort is nearly 2.5 times more likely to report suicidal intent than those with secure visas, the findings showed.

A partnership between UNSW Sydney, Australian Red Cross, Settlement Services International (SSI) and Phoenix Australia at the University of Melbourne, the study surveyed more than 1,085 refugees from Arabic, Farsi, Tamil and English-speaking backgrounds who arrived in Australia after January 2001 and obtained either secure (permanent residency or citizenship) or insecure visas (asylum seeker, temporary protection visa or bridging visa).

With most of the world’s 23 million refugees and asylum seekers living in a state of limbo, the study set out to examine how refugees adapted after coming to Australia in a bid to learn more about mental health impacts in order to inform policy and service provision.

Starting in 2015, participants filled out an online survey in their own language five times over three years, with this study marking the first set of results from data collected on the first occasion.

Published today in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, the survey assessed pre and post-migration experiences, mental health, disability and social engagement.

“Refugees with insecure visas reported significantly greater PTSD, depression symptoms and thoughts of ‘being better off dead’,” Associate Professor Angela Nickerson, Director of the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program at UNSW said.

“They were also 2.5 times more likely to report having a suicide plan than refugees with secure visas.”

Other key findings showed that despite experiencing more psychological symptoms, refugees with insecure visas were significantly more socially engaged and connected to their Australian communities than those with secure visas.

People on insecure visas were more likely to be part of and receive help from social groups like sporting clubs, volunteer and charity groups 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,” A/Prof Nickerson said.

Researchers also uncovered connections between social engagement and mental health, with refugees on insecure visas who were part of many social groups experiencing reduced suicidal intent.

Those on insecure visas who were part of fewer groups had greater depression and 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.”

Australian Red Cross’ Head of Migration Support Programs, Vicki Mau, said the study marks important new evidence about supporting and providing stronger services for people with insecure visas and echoed the organisation’s experience with the cohort.

“The evidence indicates to all of us in Australia and around the world – governments, community organisations, support services and policymakers – about 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.”