The Impact of Refugee Trauma on Children and Young People

During the refugee journey to Australia, all students and families have experienced deprivation, including:

  • Limited or no access to health care, clean water, or sanitation.
  • Disconnection from family, friends, and the broader community.
  • Disrupted schooling and/or opportunities for play.
  • Limited daily essentials (e.g., food and clothing).

In situations of armed conflict and persecution, and in transit countries, children and families are likely to have survived traumatic events, including:

  • Witnessing human rights violations on a mass scale.
  • Death of family members and friends.
  • Separation from parents and carers.
  • Rape, torture, and imprisonment.
  • Bombing, burning, and clearing of land.
  • Daily threats to self and others.
  • Imposed isolation.
  • Perilous flight or escape.
  • Daily discrimination.

(Schools In For Refugees, Foundation House)

The impact of these experiences on children can include changes in their behaviour (including aggression, anger, irritability, withdrawal from others, sadness and conduct problems), feelings of shame or embarrassment, fear and helplessness, and problems in relationships including peers, family, and teachers. It is estimated that around 11% of refugee children are likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (Phoenix Australia Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health).

In 2021, the main reasons for referral of the 239 refugee students to HEAL’s school-based expressive therapies included:

  • Feeling worried or fearful
  • Sad, distressed, flat mood
  • Possible family issues
  • Conflict with peers
  • Poor impulse control
  • Difficulty maintaining attention to task
  • Disengaged from school
  • Aggressive/often in conflict
  • Withdrawn or socially isolated
  • Self-harming
  • Visa status anxiety

The Impact of Disrupted Schooling

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that only 68% of refugee children are enrolled in primary school, and only 34% enrolled in secondary school. This means that upon entering the Australian education system, many children from refugee background have either severely disrupted schooling, or no schooling at all and their support needs go well beyond English language acquisition.

The more schooling a child has missed, the greater the gap in academic performance – which must be made up while learning English.  Children from refugee backgrounds are likely to have limited literacy abilities in their first or additional languages. Upon entering the Australian education system, they:

  • Transition through different education settings (e.g., English language school to mainstream).
  • Manage new learning environments.
  • Learn English language and literacy.
  • Experience substantial gaps between their educational knowledge and that of their Australian peers.
  • Experience the impact of ongoing settlement demands on learning.

(Foundation House)

Students who are Seeking Asylum

Students who are seeking asylum face additional challenges.

Some have spent indefinite time in immigration detention in Australia or offshore, which has directly led to poor mental health outcomes.

Others have lived in the Queensland community with an unresolved visa status or a return pending immigration status for almost a decade.

Many students and their families do not have access to Medicare or have the right to work.

Some people seeking asylum (including children who may have been born here) have been living in our Queensland community for more than a decade.

Visa status anxiety is one of the referral reasons to HEAL programs across all our schools.