Tag Archives: Refugee

The Health Plight of Older Refugees in Australia

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.

Photo Credit: migrationmuseum
Photo Credit: migrationmuseum

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.

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Elderly Refugees: The Experiences of Cambodian populations under the Khmer Rouge

Photo Credit: Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia
Photo Credit: Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia

War, natural disaster and fear of persecution often result in the tragic displacement of people far away from their homes. These people, refugees, live in uncertainty and under significant psychological and physical stress. Among these refugees are the elderly who are a particularly vulnerable group. Aging is not limited to disease and disability, but also the sudden change and a loss of belonging. The experiences of Cambodian elderly refugee populations is a clear example.

The Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in the 1970s, prompting several years of genocide and a mass exodus of Cambodians into Thailand, US and other countries. By 1979, there were 160,000 Cambodians in refugee camps in Thailand.

A 10 year study sought to capture the experiences of Cambodian Americans in Northern California. Most Cambodian Americans lived in run down neighborhoods with a high prevalence of criminal activity. Elderly immigrants were at high risk of occupying poor housing conditions. Despite this fact, some refugees chose to move back into inner city neighborhoods as they aged to be a part of the community they once were as recent immigrants. In the case of this refugee population, many elderly people did not want to return to Cambodia given the turmoil which influenced their flight. Of those who did, they were constantly reminded of the differences in living conditions between the two countries.

Many Cambodian refugees in the US had poor education. With low income and little to non-existent English skills, elderly refugees constantly needed support from other immigrant populations, their children, and resources from the government. One woman says, “At my age, I’ve nothing to do, but pray for my children. I know that now I am their pillar, but later when they all grow up and leave, I will be alone with only myself to rely on.”

The past experiences with the hardships of the Khmer Rouge are constantly woven into their current narratives. For instance, many elderly complain of diseases such as high blood pressure or sleeplessness, and attribute such ailments to the harsh lives under the the Khmer regime. Post-traumatic stress disorder and depression are also common among Cambodian refugees. According to one study, family-related anger is prevalent among refugee families because of the cultural gap between refugees and the general population, as well as between refugees and their children who are much better adjusted to American lifestyle.

There are many organizations working towards improving the lives of elderly immigrants. The International Rescue Committee (IRC), one of the world’s leading organizations for refugees, has an Elderly Refugee Program. This program provides English as a Second Language classes, and assists in part-time employment and obtaining citizenship.

Yet the question remains – What can be done about the sense of loss of loved ones, one’s home, country and citizenship?

Namratha Rao is currently pursuing her MSPH in International Health in Social and Behavioral Interventions at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.