Hidden barriers to happy families

Image of Bernadette Romulo and her son from her current petition to stay in Australia.


Migrants and refugees are often associated with families: large, cohesive, argumentative, meddling families, with children at the centre of the action.

And yet, migrants and refugees often face a huge struggle to have united, healthy, happy families. Restrictive immigration policies tend to pull families apart. Poverty, war and unrest, which can underlie the reasons for migration in the first place, interrupt parenting plans. Once settled, migrants struggle to familiarise themselves with a complicated health system and to access meaningful health information in their language. The demands of settlement – finding housing, employment, making ends meet on low wages – take precedence. Race, gender-based and other forms of systemic discrimination take their toll. Health deteriorates within the first five to ten years.

When it comes to making new families, the struggles only intensify. Accessing information and services relating to healthy pregnancy and birth is not straightforward for migrant and refugee women, who we know tend to access antenatal care at a later point than women born in Australia, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to getting the best care for their pregnancy. At the birthing end, research has shown that migrant women are more likely to require medical intervention.

Tragically, research has also consistently shown than stillbirth is more common for some migrant mothers in Australia, an issue that particularly affects women from South Asian communities, as well as women born in the Middle East and Africa. The disparity in the number of stillbirths for immigrant women is not limited to Australia: with around 2.6 million stillbirths occurring globally each year, migrant women face a significantly increased rate than non-migrant women.

Improving birth outcomes for migrant mothers is indeed an international problem, to which we should be formulating global, national and local solutions. It really shouldn’t be any harder for a migrant woman to have healthy pregnancy, birth and baby than for any other woman. Making the Australian health system more responsive and accessible to migrant women would make a big difference.

We also need to know much more about the problem. The Australian Parliament’s Senate Select Committee on Stillbirth Research and Education provides us with an important opportunity: to put the issues facing migrant and refugee women into the picture, and to invest some significant effort into education and research. More evidence and information about women’s experiences is crucial to better understand how we can reduce stillbirth rates within the most marginalised of Australian families.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, migrant or otherwise. Whatever their form, we should do our best as a nation to give all Australian families their best shot at health and wellbeing. An evidence-based approach, that includes the experiences of migrant and refugee women, will make all the difference.