The Asylum Seekers Centre of NSW recently issued a public plea for financial support. I thought Croakey readers might be interested in hearing more about the Centre, its clients, and their health needs.
Prabha Gulati, the Centre’s director, and Professor Mark Harris, a doctor who volunteers at the Centre, write:
“In the current political debate about boat people, little attention has been paid to the real problems faced by asylum seekers living in the community in Australia.
Asylum seekers are persons who having fled persecution or other dangers in their countries of origin and transit, are seeking protection and whose application for asylum or refugee status is pending. Many have experienced torture or other forms of trauma associated with organised violence or exile. Some have been awaiting a final determination on their applications for humanitarian protection for more than 10 years as their “case” wends it way through the administrative, legal and political systems.
The immigration status of asylum seekers means that they do not receive social security benefits; many are not permitted to work, consequently nor they eligible for Medicare. Most arrive by plane (not boat – though this last 12 month period may be an exception), come from many countries (predominantly in Asia, Middle East and Africa) and live in the community with support of friends, family or charitable organisations including the Asylum Seekers Centre of New South Wales. Many asylum seekers have complex medical and psychological needs related to pre-arrival experiences such as torture as well as routine health needs.
Asylum seekers suffer a range of health problems. About a quarter suffer from psychological problems related to or made worse by traumatic experiences in the own country, separation from family, and anxiety and uncertainty about their future in Australia.
A small proportion may have infectious diseases some of which can be serious such as TB. However the most common health problems are due to long term conditions such as arthritis or back problems (sometimes related to trauma), heart disease, high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, diabetes, and epilepsy. Some patients become pregnant while their case is still pending and they therefore need antenatal care and delivery in hospital as they are often at higher risk. Many suffer from dental problems. Most are unable to meet costs associated with their complex health care needs without fee waiver or charitable support.
The Asylum Seekers Centre is a not-for-profit organisation located in Sydney, providing a range of support services for asylum seekers. One of these services is a health care program which is staffed by a part time nurse, a volunteer doctor and several pro bono allied health providers. The following case stories illustrate the types of health issues that asylum seekers present with:
Aisha and Manu arrived in Australia in March 2010 after fleeing from Liberia. Aisha was 26 years old and 7 months pregnant when she first arrived in Australia. For the first month, she and her husband Manu were supported by an African woman who was living on her own. Aisha and Manu were about to become homeless when they came to the Asylum Seekers Centre. They had not yet spoken to a medical practitioner about the pregnancy. They had no further means of supporting themselves.
The social worker at the centre sourced financial and housing support, and food and phone cards were provided. Most importantly Aisha was given an appointment with our volunteer GP and a referral for ongoing pre-natal care. It was discovered the she was pregnant with twins. An early labour was subsequently stopped but Aisha was admitted into hospital to monitor other complications. Aisha delivered two healthy boys in April. The family was provided with baby goods and are now at home supported by volunteers arranged by the Centre. Aisha and Manu remain in limbo waiting for a decision on their claim for refugee protection in Australia.
Dorge, a young, single Tibetan student arrived in Australia from on a tourist visa. He had been working as a translator and was a member of a radical activist group in Tibet. Dorje was arrested and imprisoned by the Chinese authorities. A relative arranged for him to escape in the back of a truck and he ended up eventually in Dharamsala, India.
Dorge presented to the Asylum Seekers Centre, homeless and in need of financial support. The Centre social worker arranged emergency temporary accommodation and organised financial assistance.
Dorge was referred to the Health Care Program as his foot had been fractured whilst in captivity and had never healed properly. Appointments with the physiotherapist and a community podiatrist were arranged, and appropriate treatment plus orthotics were organised. He also required counselling as his mental health had deteriorated and he wasn’t sleeping or eating. He was supported by the mental health counsellor at the Asylum Seekers Centre, who saw him for approximately 3 months.
Dorge also accessed appointments at our optometry clinic and with a volunteer dentist. He came to the centre every day for meals, computer classes and yoga classes. Recently Dorge came to the Centre very relieved to have recently received his protection visa.
Asylum seekers are often unaware of where to get help and are in desperate need. Not all of them have happy endings. The Centre struggles to provide sufficient care for asylum seekers and is only able to run the health program through the services of volunteer health practitioners and the in kind support of a key partner, St Vincent’s and Mater Health, Sydney who provide access to at-cost pharmaceutical supplies and have provided diagnostic services for clients on a pro-bono basis over many years. The Asylum Seekers Centre currently receives no State or Federal government funding.
The support of the broader community is crucial in order for Centre to meet the needs of asylum seekers and eventually expand and develop its services. If you are interested in learning more about how you can help asylum seekers or support the vital work of the Asylum Seekers Centre, please go to our website, or contact the Asylum Seekers Centre on 02 9361 5606.”