Adjusting to a new life after forced migration: how are young refugees faring in Australia?

Published today in BMC Medicine, a new research article presents the first robust look at the experiences of young refugees settling in Australia. The study finds that despite young refugees experiencing more peer problems than Australian norms, there was an overall positive adjustment. Here to talk about the findings, how the study was conducted, and what this means for improving the settlement of refugees is lead author of the article, Winnie Lau.

The forced migration journey is an arduous and risky one for individuals and families fleeing war and persecution, and for those who find new hope in a different country, there are acculturative challenges that test even the most resilient of individuals. What is it like adjusting to a new life and country as a young refugee? What is it that makes a positive settlement experience? What can we learn from the Australian experience?

Up until now, there has been no robust investigation of young refugees’ experiences of adjustment and resettlement in Australia. Our research team focused on this issue and tried to capture the overall adjustment of refugee children and adolescents in the 2 to 3 year period after arriving in Australia.

Our team used data from the ‘Building a New Life in Australia’ (BNLA) study, a large population-based longitudinal cohort study of resettled refugees and their families, most of whom had been granted permanent humanitarian visas, to gain insight to how young refugees are adjusting to their new lives in Australia. From October 2015 to February 2016 the BNLA study collected information from caregivers of 694 child and adolescent refugees, aged 5 to 17 that covered a range of settlement outcomes.

Across ages and gender, 76-94% of young refugees were found to be functioning in normal ranges according to a widely used measure of children’s adjustment – the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. When we compared these adjustment outcomes to matched  young people in the Australian community, we in fact found that young refugees overall had similar or better adjustment levels, and in some instances – for example conduct problems – refugees experienced less difficulties than Australian norms.

A contrary finding though was that refugees across ages and genders in this study did experience more peer problems than Australian norms. In the context of positive adjustment overall, this finding was a surprise to the research team, and is an area that warrants further exploration: are peer problems an extension of acculturative stress or does social exclusion play a role?

The research team also looked at adjustment from the perspective of four important domains known to influence child well-being: individual, family, school, and community factors. We found some factors associated with better and poorer adjustment. Better-rated physical health and school achievement were associated with better adjustment; but hostile parenting style and school absenteeism were related to poorer adjustment.

These risk and protective factors tell us something very important about how we can better support refugees in new countries, for example, through strategies to support parenting, encourage school participation and school based achievements, and promote physical health. More broadly, these factors inform policy makers, practitioners, and researchers, that adjustment is a multi-determined construct.

Are these findings unique to Australia?

We think these findings suggest a high level of resilience in this group. But there are other potential reasons for this positive outcome. Our findings could be telling us that refugees experience a period of stabilization following an abating of initial stressors associated with resettlement, such as language acquisition, housing concerns, and settling into school.

Overall our study confirms that young refugees who are permanently resettled in Australia generally adjust well to their new lives following adversity associated with forced migration.

Furthermore, there may be unique factors related to the process of Australia’s refugee intake. For instance, most refugees in this study were granted a permanent humanitarian visa and arrived accompanied through an offshore humanitarian pathway, potentially keeping families together. Also, positive adjustment may be related to the employment of effective resettlement policies, practices, and interventions provided for this group at this stage of the migration journey.

Overall our study confirms that young refugees who are permanently resettled in Australia generally adjust well to their new lives following adversity associated with forced migration. While we certainly need to continue efforts to identify vulnerabilities and young refugees in need of mental health support in the settlement phase, there is plenty more that can be done to support well-being and adjustment in young refugees.

Our findings certainly need to be considered in an Australian context of early settlement and acculturation, but they could have implications for other high income countries that also support young refugees and their families. We also need to keep in mind cultural differences in responses that may affect these findings.

We’d like to see if our findings are replicated in other young refugees around the world, as well as follow up these children and adolescents over time to observe whether these positive outcomes persist or change over time, to gain an even deeper understanding of the experiences and trajectories of young refugees.

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