New research shows a group of Iraqi and Iranian refugees in Australia are suffering 10 times the levels of post-traumatic stress than does the wider community.  The study details the effects that strict policies on illegally entering the country had on hundreds of refugees who fled to Australia in recent years. 

The psychological health of 700 Mandaeans - a religious minority group from Iraq and Iran - was monitored as part of a study that began in 2003.

They came to Australia seeking asylum and were automatically held in custody under immigration laws that required detention for asylum seekers who did not enter the country through official refugee programs.

The survey found that prolonged detention damaged their mental health. Even when they were released and given temporary visas, researchers discovered that continued uncertainty about their future and concerns that they might not be allowed to stay permanently in Australia contributed to their psychological anguish.

The New South Wales Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors and the University of New South Wales conducted the study.

Some former detainees bothered by flashbacks, nightmares up to three years later

Researcher Zachary Steele says many of the refugees suffered considerable mental pain.

"People who had been in detention for more than six months, who'd been held for longer than that period, really had very severe psychiatric complications because of their detention, up to three years later," Steele explained.  "And about 40 percent of people (were) suffering from severe clinical depression three years later, still bothered by intrusive memories and flashbacks and nightmares about their time in detention."

The research team also found that the type of visa issued to Mandaean refugees affected their well-being.  Rates of post-traumatic stress dropped significantly when their temporary permits were changed to permanent visas.

Former persecution in addition to detention, complicates matters for Mandaeans

An estimated 6,000 Mandaeans live in Australia, most of whom escaped persecution in Iraq, because they are not Muslims.

High levels of stress and psychiatric problems have hampered their efforts to build new lives.  It is not only their experiences in the Australian detention centers that caused problems.  Many remain worried about friends and relatives still living in Iraq and Iran. Members of the sect, which predates both Christianity and Islam, are persecuted in both countries, and thousands have fled in the past decade.

In recent months Australia's Labor government has been dismantling many parts of the country's strict asylum policy. It no longer automatically detains asylum seekers who enter the country illegally and now gives them permanent visas instead of temporary ones.

Australia resettles about 13,000 refugees under official humanitarian programs.