Healthcare for people from refugee background

Australia has a dedicated Humanitarian program that responds to changing global circumstances and provides resettlement for refugees. The program currently resettles approximately 13,750 people per year. The federal government has allocated an extra 16,500 places for Afghan nationals over the next 4 years. South Australia receives approximately 7-10% of the national quota.

People from refugee background are forced to leave their home country. They have frequently experienced violence, poverty, food scarcity, and limited access to healthcare and education. Most refugees live in second countries for extended periods (can be 10 to 20 years), and often in a refugee camp. Post‑migration challenges are significant and include unfamiliarity with the health system, cultural and language barriers, separation from family, and finding suitable housing.

People seeking asylum have arrived in Australia and are seeking onshore protection as refugees. They have also frequently experienced violence and persecution. In South Australia, as of 31 August 2021 there were 1,268 people seeking asylum via onshore protection. (Asylum statistics in Australia - Refugee Council of Australia). Within the state, persons on bridging visas are settled in Northern Adelaide and in the Limestone Coast region, with the majority coming from Sri Lanka, Iran, Afghanistan, and Vietnam (Dec 2021: Asylum statistics in Australia - Refugee Council of Australia). People seeking asylum have variable access to Centrelink, Medicare and support; and they often face prolonged uncertainty.

People from refugee background have variable health literacy, which includes understanding how the healthcare system works, how their body works, how to buy medication and how to use repeat prescriptions. Some common health issues include undiagnosed or poorly managed chronic disease, nutritional and vitamin deficiencies, infectious diseases not commonly seen in Australia, and psychological health issues related to pre‑migration experiences. A kind, sensitive, and supportive whole of service approach helps to ensure that physical and psychological problems do not become enduring barriers to settlement.

New arrival refugees arriving under the Humanitarian program will be supported by the Settlement Service (in 2022 the Settlement Service is AMES Australia) and have a case worker. The case worker assists in the early period of settlement with linking to school, healthcare, Medicare, Centrelink, and housing.

Providing healthcare to people of refugee background can expose health professionals to difficult and challenging experiences. It is important to be mindful of vicarious trauma and to seek support, if needed.

HealthPathways SA supports health professionals in the assessment, diagnosis and management of health issues experienced by people from refugee background via the following new pathways and associated referral pages. For information on accessing and working with interpreters see the Interpreter Services pathway.

“I have been privileged to provide health care to people arriving in South Australia as refugees for over 15 years. People from refugee background have usually had minimal access to health care prior to arrival in Australia. The Refugee Health Pathway provides an evidence-based guide for completing a new arrival refugee health assessment as well as guidance in managing health issues not commonly seen in Australia. Providing good quality person centred health care soon after arrival helps to set people up for successful settlement. If you need further clinical advice or support, then please contact Refugee Health Service.” GP Clinical Editor, Dr Toni Maldari

Access to HealthPathways SA is free to health professionals, for access to the site click here.

Your feedback is essential

HealthPathways are dynamic and your feedback is essential to maintain currency. If you would like to provide feedback, there is a feedback button on every pathway and referral page, or alternatively email us at

HealthPathways SA is a partnership between Wellbeing SA, Adelaide PHN and Country SA PHN.

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