Symbolic violence and disempowerment as factors in the adverse impact of immigration detention on adult asylum seekers’ mental health

Cleveland, J.; Kronick, R.; Gros, H.; & Rousseau, C. (2018)

International journal of public health

63(8) | 1001-1008


The first objective of this qualitative component of a mixed-methods study is to provide a descriptive account of adult asylum seekers’ experience of detention in Canadian immigration detention centers. The second objective is to identify the main underlying factors accounting for their reported feelings of distress.


Researchers interviewed 81 adult asylum seekers held in two Canadian immigration detention centers concerning their experience of detention. Participants were drawn from a sample of 122 detained asylum seekers who had completed structured questionnaires about mental health and detention conditions.


Asylum seekers expressed shock and humiliation at being « treated like criminals. » Detainees felt disempowered by the experience of waiting for an indeterminate period for the outcome of a discretionary decision over which they have little control, but which will determine their freedom and their future. For trauma survivors, detention sometimes triggered retraumatization.


Detention, even for brief periods in relatively adequate conditions, was found to be detrimental to asylum seekers’ mental health. This adverse impact appears to be largely attributable to the combined effect of two factors: symbolic violence and disempowerment.