© Emerald Group Publishing Limited. Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to measure the levels of psychological distress in adults entering Western Australia (WA) as refugees through the Australian Humanitarian Programme. To determine if the introduction of mental health screening instruments impacts on the level of referrals for further psychological/ psychiatric assessment and treatment. Design/methodology/approach – Participants were 300 consecutive consenting refugee adults attending the Humanitarian Entrant Health Service in Perth, WA. This service is government funded for the general health screening of refugees. The Kessler-10 (K10) and the World Health Organisation’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) screener were the principal outcome measures used. Findings – Refugees had a high rate of current probable PTSD (17.2 per cent) as measured with the PTSD screener and mean K10 scores were significantly higher than general population norms. The K10 showed high accuracy for discriminating those with or without probable PTSD. Being married and having more children increased the risk of probable PTSD. In regard to region of origin, refugees from Western and Southern Asia had significantly higher scores on both screeners followed by those from Africa with those from South-Eastern Asia having the lowest scores. Referral rate for psychiatric/psychological treatment was 18 per cent compared to 4.2 per cent in the year prior to the study. Practical implications – This study demonstrates increased psychological distress including a high rate of probable PTSD in a recently arrived multi-ethnic refugee population and also demonstrates significant variations based on region of origin. In addition, it supports the feasibility of using brief screening instruments to improve identification and referral of refugees with significant psychological distress in the context of a comprehensive general medical review. Originality/value – This was an Australian study conducted in a non-psychiatric setting. The outcomes of this study pertain to refugee mental health assessed in a general health setting. The implications of the study findings are of far reaching relevance, inclusive of primary care doctors and general physicians as well as mental health clinicians. In particular the authors note that the findings of this study are to the authors’ knowledge unique in the refugee mental health literature as the participants are recently arrived refugees from diverse ethnic groups.