Access to primary health care services by community-based asylum seekers

Erin A Spike, Mitchell M Smith and Mark F Harris
Med J Aust 2011; 195 (4): 188-191.


Objectives: To determine whether community-based asylum seekers experience difficulty in gaining access to primary health care services, and to determine the impact of any difficulties described.

Design, setting and participants: Qualitative study using semi-structured interviews between September and November 2010. Participants were community-based asylum seekers who attended the Asylum Seekers Centre of New South Wales, and health care practitioners and staff from the Asylum Seekers Centre and the NSW Refugee Health Service.

Results: We interviewed 12 asylum seekers, three nurses, one general practitioner and one manager. Asylum seekers’ responses revealed that their access to primary health care was limited by a range of barriers including Medicare ineligibility, health care costs and the effects of social, financial and psychological stress. Limited access contributed to physical suffering and stress in affected asylum seekers. Participants providing care noted some improvement in access after recent government policy changes. However, they noted inadequate access to general practitioners, and dental, mental health and maternity care, and had difficulty negotiating pro-bono services. Both groups commented on the low availability of interpreters.

Conclusions: Access to primary health care in Australia for community-based asylum seekers remains limited, and this has a negative effect on their physical and mental health. Further action is needed to improve the affordability of health care and to increase the provision of support services to community-based asylum seekers; extending Medicare eligibility would be one way of achieving this.

  • Erin A Spike1
  • Mitchell M Smith2
  • Mark F Harris1

  • 1 Centre for Primary Health Care and Equity, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW.
  • 2 School of Public Health and Community Medicine, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW.



We greatly appreciate the assistance of the staff at the Asylum Seekers Centre and the NSW Refugee Health Service. In particular, we would like to thank Sally Harrold at the Asylum Seekers Centre for her assistance with recruiting participants for the study.

Competing interests:

None relevant to this article declared (ICMJE disclosure forms completed).


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