Since World War II, Australia has taken in an estimated 675,000 refugees and is ranked among the world’s top countries for refugee resettlement. As of 2015, there were 35,582 refugees living in Australia.
Classified by the United Nations as someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country,” a refugee faces a plethora of stresses – many even after resettlement – that adversely affect his health and well-being.
Increased risks for infectious and chronic diseases, post-traumatic stress disorder, and difficulties accessing necessary health-related services are some of the widespread effects of living in refugee settlements, being exposed to war or persecution and learning to navigate foreign cultural contexts. These effects are significantly exacerbated in older refugees.
In Australia, there are two categories of older refugees – individuals who were over the age of 60 upon resettlement, and individuals who resettled as young people and aged in Australia. While data is limited, some studies have shown that older refugee populations fare worse than their native counterparts.
Specific health conditions identified as a concern for older refugees include age-related memory problems, psychological health status, physical health needs, and social isolation. While these problems may seem related to elders in general, their effects are particularly pronounced among refugees.
To add to this issue, the health needs of the elderly in times of conflict are also often overlooked. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees explains that “lack of mobility, weakened vision and chronic illnesses such as arthritis and rheumatism (issues typically face by older adults) can make access to support difficult, and aid services often do not take these issues into consideration.”
The crisis that compels individuals to seek asylum and resettlement in other countries are often physically, mentally, and emotionally traumatic. Elderly individuals often suffer great upheaval and are at greater risk of experiencing social isolation and separation from family upon their displacement.
We are at a point in history where we are seeing the largest number of refugees ever since World War II. In order to address the needs of older refugees in Australia as well as elsewhere in the world, it is crucial that policy makers consider refugees as a distinct group in need of specific services that are unique from the rest of the population. It is also important to consider the needs of refugees across their entire lifespans and across stages of resettlement.
Diana Kingsbury is a PhD student and graduate assistant in prevention science at Kent State University College of Public Health.