Need is a difficult theoretical concept. Ideas about need are complicated by theorists’ diverse use of the term (Sandole 1990; Bay 1977; Dawson 1994; Doyle & Gough 1991). The term is used to refer to: the fundamental biological need for air, food or water; basic human needs, such as the need for meaning, identity and social interaction; and culturally or historically specific manifestations of need such as the need for gainful employment, access to refrigeration or the like. The definition of ‘basic human needs’ changes over time and place (Fraser 1987, 1989; Heller 1993). Any discussion of needs is inescapably accompanied by value judgements and is as much about ideology as empirical science or commonsense.
Bradshaw (1972) proposes four concepts of need that can potentially be operationalised to assist in an appraisal of the circumstances of refugee young people:
‘comparative need’ which measures need relative to similar groups;
‘felt need’ or what people want and believe they need;
‘normative need’ or what expert or professionals define as need.
Applying these measures to refugee young people is not straightforward for a number of reasons. Refugees resettled in Australia live in a culture that is dramatically different from the one in which they were socialised. This presents difficulties in determining the norms against which their lived experience, needs and standards of living can legitimately be compared. Should the living standards of refugees be on a par with the culture in which they were raised, the culture in which they now live, or the people from similar source cultures to themselves living in the new culture? Such questions are rarely raised explicitly in public debate surrounding Australia’s humanitarian policy. These debates are revealing nevertheless since they often betray certain stereotypes about the degree of impoverishment seen by some as a defining characteristic of refugee people. For example, it is sometimes suggested that asylum seekers who pay people smugglers to bring them to Australia by definition cannot be genuine refugees.1 Aside from allegations and counter-allegations about how much money changes hands, there is a sense in which refugees are not deemed deserving of assistance unless they are completely destitute. Such views have implications for the standard of living that might be seen as acceptable for refugees once in Australia. In short, the application of comparative criteria of need can become politically sensitive where public support for Australia’s humanitarian policy is not actively maintained.
Felt and expressed criteria of need are also problematic with respect to refugees. As noted, a residual effect of the experiences of persecution is ongoing distrust of government and authority figures. Combined with language difficulties or cultural norms, this may mean that refugees do not even publicly acknowledge feeling need. Recently arrived refugees are likely to experience a great sense of relief to finally reach a safe environ- ment. The point of comparison for many refugees is likely to be their most recent living situation, often a refugee camp, with impoverished and over-crowded conditions. Australian standards of living are so much better overall that particular issues of individual need are masked at least for a while. The issue is particularly complicated for asylum seekers whose claims for refugee status are unresolved. Asylum seekers are perhaps even less likely than recognised refugees to acknowledge unmet need, for fear that this may jeopardise their application for refugee status.
I was not angry to be put in detention, because it is the policy of Australia. I just accept it (Algerian asylum seeker, male, spent four months in Australian detention centre).
Contrary to this, 2002 saw a series of highly publicised protests by asylum seekers held within Woomera Immigration Reception and Processing Centre in South Australia. These protests were made in the context of international scrutiny of Australia’s policy of mandatory detention, and the needs expressed by the protestors were for basic rights to freedom and for their claims for protection under the UN Convention to be processed with due speed and fairness. The protests took a visually dramatic form when asylum seekers, including some young people and children, bound their lips with suture in a symbolic gesture of refusing food until their rights to freedom were taken seriously. The expressions of distaste made by some senior politicians and public commentators in response to these actions, illustrate all too clearly how the behaviour through which need is communicated may give rise to incomprehension – not merely as a result of cultural difference, or indeed, of politically motivated failure to understand, but at least in part because it remains difficult for people who have not shared similar experiences to fully understand the sense of desperation that motivates such actions.
Documentation of felt needs assumes a willingness to acknowledge and communicate, which in turn depends on adequate linguistic skills and the confidence to express oneself. This is further complicated by the fact that for people from some cultural backgrounds, ‘there is no natural connection […] between need and the fulfilment of that need by a social agency’ (Biocchi & Radcliffe 1983, p.69). Notwithstanding the prevalence of neoliberal political philosophies, Western society generally values active intervention in coping with social problems, reflecting a cultural system in which many of the caring roles originally fulfilled by family networks have been taken over by the state. In some Eastern philosophies, suffering is viewed as part of the natural order and non-intervention is accorded value in its own right (Biocchi & Radcliffe 1983). Furthermore, expressed need takes shape within a context of services that already exist. Where services do not exist or are culturally irrelevant, an understatement of need inevitably results.
The most common method for identifying need on a case by case level involves professionals making judgements about the extent of an individual’s need after listening to his or her story and then bringing to bear various professional skills and practice experience in the assessment. Judgements of need may of course vary dramatically from professional to professional and also from profession to profession. This is probably inescapable, but is less problematic where practitioners are encouraged to be self-conscious about the assumptions they are making with respect to ‘need’. In his exploration of the assumptions about ‘social need’ embedded in policy debates in the United Kingdom, Smith (1980) discovered that ‘need tends to have been viewed as an objective and measurable property’, characteristics he associates with a medical model (1980, p.6). Need has traditionally been perceived as a personal attribute of clients rather than something that depends on context. It tends to be understood as independent of client–practitioner interaction, in particular a organisational milieu and of the definitional practices of professionals. Smith concludes that ‘obsolete’ views of need featuring ‘rigid and artificial distinctions’ persist because organisational structures prohibit the operational adoption of alternative ideas.