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Jun 27, 2019 | by Dr Miriam Posselt

Refugees and asylum seekers in transit: what do we know about their wellbeing?

This week’s guest blog looks at wellbeing among refugees and asylum seekers displaced in temporary transit situations. Dr Miriam Posselt, Research Fellow at The University of South Australia’s Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Research Group shares findings from the group’s recent project published in Health and Social Care in the Community.

The world is currently witnessing the largest number of people displaced on record, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ 2017 estimates of global displacement – 68.5 million people.

Depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are frequently reported in the literature as highly prevalent mental health problems among refugees and asylum seekers.  Often, for individuals in transit, experiences of torture, trauma, loss, economic hardship and physical illness are coupled with difficult living conditions, and fear and uncertainty regarding the future. 

We tried to explore and combine the findings from research conducted in these contexts across the world to better understand factors associated with enhanced wellbeing. In other words, what factors could be introduced to facilitate wellbeing in situations where resources are limited and uncertainty and a sense of living in limbo are significant drivers of distress.  

What the research looked at

We reviewed and combined the findings from 16 research projects conducted in 11 different countries concerning enablers of psychological wellbeing for refugees and asylum seekers living in transitional host countries. We then identified themes across the findings and collapsed these into key categories of enablers of wellbeing. 

Key findings

We found eight key categories of enablers of wellbeing:

  1. Social support
  2. Faith, religion, spirituality, and culture
  3. Cognitive strategies
  4. Engaging in employment and economic activities 
  5. Education and vocational training
  6. Behavioural strategies 
  7. Advocacy and activism
  8. Environment 

Some of these enablers of wellbeing were more commonly reported than others. Not surprisingly, social support and religious or cultural factors were the most commonly reported contributors to wellbeing – establishing social networks with family, friends, community, and religious groups, and engaging in religious activities or finding strength from faith.

Cognitive strategies such as reframing, self‐reflection, acceptance of feelings, positive thinking, problem‐solving, distraction techniques (in order to avoid unhelpful or traumatic thoughts/memories), and identification of hopes, wishes and future aspirations and intentionally focusing on them were also found to be commonly associated with wellbeing. 

Across all these categories, the notion of connecting to a sense of meaning, purpose and hope, including engaging in employment, learning, self-improvement and political advocacy was found to be extremely important for wellbeing for people in these contexts. 

What’s next?

Next, we are hoping to understand what the most valuable therapeutic approaches are for people in these contexts to further help decision-making when it comes to designing and implementing psychosocial support programs in these settings.


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