For refugees in Australia, life during COVID lockdowns recalls the trauma of war and persecution


Philippa Specker, UNSW; Angela Nickerson, UNSW, and Belinda Liddell, UNSWWhile the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on everyone’s mental health, people from refugee backgrounds may be uniquely affected, owing to their past traumatic experiences.

As survivors of war and persecution, many refugees have faced the threat of death because of their race, religion, political stance or social group. Some have endured conflict that involved restrictions on their movements, and major social and economic upheaval.

As a result, aspects of the current pandemic may be reminiscent of past traumatic experiences. And this overlap between past and present can have serious and far-reaching consequences for refugee mental health.

Our research, published today, found being reminded of past traumatic experiences was the strongest predictor of poor mental health among a group of refugees living in Australia.

Some key findings

During 2020, we surveyed 656 adult refugees living in Australia (predominantly in New South Wales and Victoria) about their experiences during COVID-19 and their mental health.

We then explored the relationships between particular COVID-related stressors and mental health outcomes — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, health anxiety and daily functioning.

The most prevalent stressors were concern about contracting COVID-19, and concern about their family becoming infected, which 66.5% and 72.1% of participants reported respectively. These worries were associated with more severe PTSD symptoms and health anxiety symptoms.

Difficulties engaging socially due to having to stay at home were also common, and were linked to increased depression. Refugees already experience high levels of isolation and loneliness, so they’re likely to be particularly vulnerable on this front.

But the strongest predictor of all mental health outcomes was COVID-19 serving as a reminder of past trauma. Some 41.1% of participants said the pandemic reminded them of difficult or stressful experiences in their past, and these respondents reported increased PTSD, depression, health anxiety and poorer daily functioning.

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Explainer: what is post-traumatic stress disorder?

This matches with our clinical experience

Our experience in providing psychological therapy to refugees with PTSD is consistent with these findings.

PTSD affects about one in three refugees and is a psychological condition that can follow traumatic experiences. A person with PTSD continuously experiences intrusive and distressing memories of past trauma.

The pandemic is having a profound yet invisible impact on many refugees because it is reminding them of their very worst memories.

For instance, we’ve heard from some clients that the sight of empty streets is prompting flashbacks of air raids. For others the sensation of wearing a face mask brings up memories of being gagged or hooded during imprisonment and torture.

Some have said lockdowns, quarantine, and a heightened police and army presence in their communities are distressing reminders of political terror or detention.

The interplay of past trauma and current circumstances may have serious effects on mental health. Further, this can put refugees at a greater risk of harm generally, with heightened fear creating a barrier to leaving the house for legitimate reasons such as buying food, exercising, getting tested for COVID-19 or accessing medical support.

What can we do?

With the escalating COVID-19 outbreak in western Sydney and south-western Sydney, it’s important to remember these suburbs are home to the majority of the refugee population in NSW.

The good news is there are things we can do to minimise the burden of the pandemic on refugee communities. Consultation and engagement with community leaders and experts are the best tools to ensure public health measures and messaging are culturally sensitive and trauma-informed.

For example, providing clear and inclusive information in multiple languages can be an effective way to dispel fears and misinformation. Unfortunately, translated health advice has been lagging.

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During lockdowns, authorities need to carefully consider the use of police and army personnel, and transparently communicate their plans with the public.

They also need to emphasise there are safe pathways for accessing essential services, such as online medical consultations.

Finally, the psychological effects of this pandemic will likely be felt long after the final restrictions have been lifted. So continued funding of mental health services that support refugees will be essential.

There’s resilience too

Refugees enrich Australian society and have a long history of showing resilience in the face of social and economic upheaval. Having already overcome tremendous adversity in their home countries, refugees may be well-placed to navigate the challenges of living through a pandemic. We can all learn a lot from Australia’s refugee communities.

But it can be hard to stay resilient when your sense of safety is threatened. Now is a timely opportunity for government to reflect on the unintended implications of the pandemic on refugee mental health, and ensure steps are taken to prevent unnecessary suffering.

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Refugees without secure visas have poorer mental health – but the news isn’t all bad

The Conversation

Philippa Specker, Scientia PhD scholar at the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program, School of Psychology, UNSW; Angela Nickerson, Professor & Director, Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program, School of Psychology, UNSW, and Belinda Liddell, Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Refugee Trauma and Recovery Program, School of Psychology, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Leaked documents on Uighur detention camps in China – an expert explains the key revelations

Omer Bekali, a former detainee in China’s vast camps for Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities, speaking to a news conference in Germany about his experiences.
Felipe Trueba/EPA

Michael Clarke, Australian National University

This past weekend, The New York Times’ China correspondents, Chris Buckley and Austin Ramzy, published an expose of over 400 internal Chinese government documents relating to Beijing’s mass detentions of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in the far-western region of Xinjiang.

This trove of documents includes 96 internal speeches by Chinese President and Communist Party (CCP) Chairman Xi Jinping, as well as hundreds of speeches and directives by other CCP officials on the strategies of surveillance and control implemented in the region.

The documents confirm previous analyses by researchers on key aspects of the Chinese government’s so-called “reeducation” system for Uighurs. They also reveal new details on both the timing and rationale for the mass detentions and the extent of opposition within the CCP to this approach.

Most importantly, however, the documents confirm Xi’s high level of personal involvement in driving the campaign of repression in Xinjiang.

What the documents confirm

A number of Xi’s internal speeches confirm previous assessments of the reasons behind the implementation of the government’s mass detention and “reeducation” policies.

It’s clear from the documents that fears of potential connections between violence in Xinjiang and Islamic extremism in neighbouring Afghanistan and the battlefields of Iraq and Syria played a key role in Xi’s call for a “people’s war on terrorism”.

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In one speech, for instance, Xi remarks that with the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, “terrorist organisations” would be “positioned on the frontiers of Afghanistan and Pakistan” while

East Turkestan terrorists who have received real-war training in Syria and Afghanistan could at any time launch terrorist attacks in Xinjiang.

In this context, a number of high-profile terrorist attacks that have occurred in China in recent years, including a train station attack in Kunming and a bombing at a marketplace in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, appear to have confirmed such fears.

As Xi asserted during a visit to a counterterrorism police unit in Urumqi the same month as the marketplace attack, the party must “unleash” the “tools of dictatorship” and “show absolutely no mercy” in its eradication of “extremists”.

Police investigating the knife attacks at Kunming’s train station in 2014, which left 31 people dead and 140 wounded.
Sui Shui/EPA

The documents also demonstrate that the CCP’s recent tendency to frame both “extremists” and religious believers more broadly through the language of biological contagion or drug addiction comes from the top.

Xi himself states that those “infected” by “extremism” would require “a period of painful, interventionary treatment”, lest they have

their consciences destroyed, lose their humanity and murder without blinking an eye.

This language of paternalistic state intervention is not mere rhetoric, but concretely guides policy on the ground.

Read more:
Despite China’s denials, its treatment of the Uyghurs should be called what it is: cultural genocide

This is evident in one document prepared to assist local officials in the city of Turpan respond to queries by Uighur children of relatives sent to “reeducation” camps.

If officials are asked why those sent to the detention centres cannot return home, for example, they should answer by noting the party would be “irresponsible” to

let a member of your family go home before their illness was cured.

Rather, children should be grateful to the state for the detention of their family members and should

treasure this chance for free education that the party and government has provided to thoroughly eradicate erroneous thinking, and also learn Chinese and job skills.

The Turpan document also confirms the link between “reeducation” and forced labour. It notes family members undergoing “reeducation” can

find a satisfying job in one of the businesses that we’ve brought in or established.

As American researcher Darren Byler has detailed, detainees are often compelled to work as low-skilled labour in factories either directly connected to re-education centres or, upon their “release”, in nearby industrial parks where Chinese companies have been incentivised to relocate.

Key revelations in the reporting

There are several major revelations associated with the documents, as well. Most significant of all, according to the Times, is the fact the documents were leaked

by a member of the Chinese political establishment who requested anonymity and expressed hope that their disclosure would prevent party leaders, including Mr. Xi, from escaping culpability for the mass detentions.

Beyond such a (presumably) high-placed official, the leaked documents and reporting also reveal a greater level of dissent and uncertainty within lower levels of the party than previously understood.

Internal party documents note 12,000 investigations in 2017 alone into party members in Xinjiang for “violations” in the “fight against separatism and extremism”.

The leaked documents reflect Chinese President Xi Jinping’s personal involvement in driving the campaign of repression in Xinjiang.
Andre Coelho/EPA

The case of CCP official Wang Yongzhi, detailed by Buckley and Ramzy, is indicative here.

According to a “confession”, the local party chief in Yarkand in the far south of Xinjiang initially followed central policy directives by zealously building “two sprawling new detention facilities, including one as big as 50 basketball courts” and “doubling spending on outlays such as checkpoints and surveillance”.

However, fearing mass detentions would negatively impact on economic development goals and social cohesion – key benchmarks for achieving promotion within the party – Wang “broke the rules” and released thousands of detainees.

For this, he was removed from his post in 2017 and in an internal party report six months later was openly castigated for his “brazen defiance” of the “central leadership’s strategy for Xinjiang”.

Read more:
Explainer: who are the Uyghurs and why is the Chinese government detaining them?

Wang’s case demonstrates the existence of competing incentives at the local level in the implementation of centrally dictated policy.

His “brazen defiance” was not a principled stand against mass detentions but rather a pragmatic consideration of the potentially negative effects on his career should detentions undermine broader policy goals.

In this regard, it feels like a fairly typical experience of a low-level official in any authoritarian or totalitarian regime around the world.

It is this mundane quality that gives at least a kernel of hope the naked self-interest of party officials may play a part in pressuring the leadership to eventually reverse course on its Uighur detention policies.

However, given the stark and cold-blooded language revealed in the documents, this may prove to be a forlorn one.The Conversation

Michael Clarke, Associate Professor, National Security College, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Uganda: Persecution News Update

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Egypt: Persecution News Update

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Eritrea: Persecution News Update

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Burkina Faso: Persecution News Update

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Myanmar: Persecution News Update

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Uganda: Persecution News Update

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Iran: Persecution News Update

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Nigeria: Persecution News Update

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