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Hardship, heartbreak and mental health challenges

Major Karen Elkington outside Parliament House in Canberra.

Salvos Online journalist SIMONE WORTHING spoke to Major Karen Elkington, Manager of The Salvation Army’s Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service in Melbourne, about the hardship, heartbreak and mental health challenges faced by refugees and people seeking asylum. Karen reflected on the uncertainty thousands of people who seek protection experience while waiting for their protection claims to be assessed and the additional challenges they face due to community stigma and complex migration processes.



Many refugees and people seeking asylum are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the recently proposed Migration Amendment (Removal and Other Measures) Bill 2024, otherwise known as ‘the Bill’.


“The Bill and its possible ramifications are definitely ‘in the headlines’ in the asylum seeker and refugee space,” says Karen.


“Our [Salvos] Policy and Advocacy team wrote a brilliant submission in opposition to this Bill*, as did many other legal, community and lived-experience advocates and organisations, due to the threats it poses to the wellbeing of refugees and people seeking asylum. As we wait to see whether the Bill is passed and becomes law, we are seeing the significant stress it is causing within our multicultural communities.


“Basically, if this Bill gets through in its current form, it permits the expansion of government powers, including to criminalise anyone who does not comply with deportation directions (regardless of whether this is intentional), condone the separation of children and families through deportation, and implement a blanket ban which prohibits all visa applications from specific countries. Whether these actions are executed or not, it is concerning to suggest and that it may be made possible by legislation. This is causing incredible anxiety in our communities.

“We are also noticing that the thousands of asylum seekers who have been in the country for over 10 years and have children born here can now apply for Australian citizenship for the children once they turn 10. The children can get a green Medicare card and, in the future, can vote, but they’re being raised in families who are still in immigration limbo.”

Karen said many of these families can’t access the benefits for their children due to the complexity of navigating the Services Australia processes. For families with children who have become citizens, Karen and her team are exploring this issue and are now working with Services Australia to resolve it.

Mental health challenges

The team is also finding deep depression and mental health challenges are present amongst refugees and people seeking asylum, particularly the 9000-12,000 who were not found to be owed protection during the unfair and now abolished Fast-Track visa system process.

“They’ve basically been left behind with no real pathway to a visa or ability to live a life with dignity in Australia,” Karen explains.

“We are seeing them [refugees and people seeking asylum] lose hope. Experiences of depression, complex mental health challenges, homelessness and many other experiences of disadvantage are common. Men, women, children and families are suffering.

“I can’t do anything for them except pray for them, reassure them, support them and advocate for them. Advocacy is challenging, but we won’t give up, and, as Christians, we continue to reassure them of their value to us and to God. We speak gently and try to bring comfort and practical help, but we know they will have dark and depressive days because the situation is so difficult, overwhelming and frustrating. Their trauma is compounded, and disadvantage is perpetuated with long and punitive processes to prove they are owed protection rather than processes that focus on affording dignity and compassion. This culminates in feelings of intense uncertainty, fear, confusion and grief.

The Asylum Seeker and Refugee Service is also a specialised Doorways (Salvos emergency relief) centre. People can be assessed for gift cards, food, clothing, toiletries and children’s toys. Other necessities are also available for people to take home. A Doorways caseworker, a chaplaincy team and an Employment Plus Local service are also available.

Good news

Although the outlook for many people seeking asylum seems bleak, there is some good news.

“The happiest news I’ve had is that some of our people who were former asylum seekers who’d arrived by boat have been able to transition onto Resolution of Status visas,” Karen shared.

“After 12 months, people can then apply for citizenship. It’s a joyous moment when they come in here with their applications for Australian citizenship so that I, as a minister of religion, can sign and verify their photos.

“It’s really heartening and lovely to see that, after all this time, these people can finally apply for citizenship. But for most of the people we see, it would be a tremendous breakthrough if some sort of visa pathway could be found for them so they can continue their lives here with dignity in Australia.”



*“TSA submission on Migration Amendment (Removement and other measures) Bill 2024


The Salvation Army prepared a Submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in response to the Migration Amendment (Removals and Other Measures) Bill 2024.


The Salvation Army does not support this Bill and recommends that it not be passed. The Submission responds to the Bill and explores the following impacts of legislation for refugee and asylum seeker communities across Australia:

▪ Risk of refoulement for those with protection claims rejected through Fast-Track,

▪ Compounding trauma due to prolonged processes and family separation, and

▪ Exacerbating disadvantage through migration process barriers and criminalisation.



 Click here to read the full Submission and recommendations.






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