Mental distress and human rights of
Emma Jean Campbell and Emily Jean Steel
Emma Jean Campbell is PhD
Candidate at the School of
Political Science and
International Studies, University
of Queensland, Brisbane,
Australia and Institute for Urban
Indigenous Health, Brisbane,
Emily Jean Steel is Associate
Lecturer at the School of Health
and Rehabilitation Sciences,
University of Queensland,
Purpose –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.
Design/methodology/approach –Using grounded theory, data were collected via observations, semi-
structured interviews, key-informant interviews, and document analysis. Participants included sevenasylum
seekers and three professionals working with them.
Findings –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.
Originality/value –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.
Keywords Wellbeing, Policy, Asylum seekers, Human rights, Mental health
Paper type Research paper
Under Australia’s detention policy, asylum seekers’mental wellbeing is concerning. Despite
signing and ratifying multilateral human rights agreements (Australian Human Rights
Commission, 2013a) providing legal protection for asylum seekers’dignity and wellbeing,
Australia’s government is criticized for poor treatment of asylum seekers, especially with respect
to their mental health (Gelber and McDonald, 2006; Billings, 2011; Office of the United Nations
High Commissioner for Refugees, 2011; Branson, 2011; Green and Eagar, 2010; Coffey et al.,
2010; Australian Human Rights Commission, 2011b, c, d).
Asylum seekers are people in a state other than their original home country awaiting an
outcome regarding refugee protection (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 2013).
In Australia, they live in restricted conditions, and often in long-term detention (Bull et al., 2012).
Scholars claim that policy responses to asylum seekers in industrialized countries such as USA,
UK, Australia, Austria, and Denmark are discriminatory and exclusive; aimed at containing people
involved in “irregular”migration flows to their areas of origin (Hynes and Ebooks, 2011; Kalt et al.,
2013; Kneebone, 2009; Rosenberger and Konig, 2012). In the 2013 United Nations human
Received 6 June 2013
Revised 3 February 2014
Accepted 13 February 2014
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
DOI 10.1108/JPMH-06-2013-0040 VOL. 14 NO. 2 2015, pp. 43-55, © Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1746-5729
JOURNAL OF PUBLIC MENTALHEALTH
PAG E 43