Open Access Research article

Length of stay in asylum centres and mental health in asylum seekers: a retrospective study from Denmark

Peter Hallas1*, Anne R Hansen2, Mia A Stæhr3, Ebbe Munk-Andersen4 and Henrik L Jorgensen5

Author Affiliations

1 Højdevangs Allé 9 st, 2300 Copenhagen, Denmark

2 National Institute of Public Health, Øster Farimagsgade 5, 1399 Copenhagen, Denmark

3 Hörda 41, 34014 Lagan, Sweden

4 The Danish Red Cross Asylum Department, Dag Hammarskiölds Allé 28, Box 810, 2100 Copenhagen, Denmark

5 Department of Clinical Biochemisty, Bispebjerg University Hospital, Bispebjerg Bakke 23, 2400 Copenhagen NV, Denmark

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BMC Public Health 2007, 7:288  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-7-288

Published: 11 October 2007



The length of stay in asylum centres is generally mentioned as a possible health risk to asylum seekers. Medical staff working with asylum seekers has claimed that long lengths of stay in asylum centres might cause or aggravate mental disorders. We used records from a large, multiethnic group of asylum seekers to study if the incidence of mental disorders increased with length of stay.


The study population was asylum seekers in Danish asylum centres run by the Danish Red Cross. General medical care was provided by Red Cross staff who could refer selected cases to medical specialists. If an asylum seeker needed more than three specialist consultations for mental illness or five consultations for physical illness the referrals had to be approved by The Danish Immigration Service. Between July 2001 – December 2002 the Red Cross prospectively registered health related data on all new applications (n = 4516) to the Immigration Service regarding referrals to medical specialists. We used these records to analyse the association between length of stay in the asylum centres and overall rate of referral for mental disorders. Data was analysed using weighted linear regression.


We found that referrals for mental disorders increased with length of stay in asylum centres in a large, multiethnic population of asylum seekers. The association was found in all the categories of psychiatric illness studied and for a majority of the nationality groups studied.


Length of stay in asylum centres was associated with an increase in referrals for mental disorders in a large, multiethnic group of asylum seekers. The present study supports the view that prolonged length of stay in an asylum centre is a risk factor for mental health. The risk of psychiatric illness among asylum seekers should be addressed by political and humanitarian means, giving prevention of illness the highest priority.