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

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International Journal of Public Health



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.

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The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (Grant MOP-102499).

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Correspondence to Janet Cleveland.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Human and animal rights

All procedures performed in our study involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional research committees and with the 1964 Helsinki Declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. The protocol was approved by the Research Ethics Boards of the McGill University Faculty of Medicine, the Centre de Santé et de Services Sociaux de la Montagne, and the Mount Sinai Hospital.

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This article is part of the special issue “Violence, Justice, and Health: Implications for a Multisectoral Collaboration”.

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Cleveland, J., Kronick, R., Gros, H. et al. Symbolic violence and disempowerment as factors in the adverse impact of immigration detention on adult asylum seekers’ mental health. Int J Public Health 63, 1001–1008 (2018).

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