Recognizing and appropriately treating mental health problems among new immigrants and refugees in primary care poses a challenge because of differences in language and culture and because of specific stressors associated with migration and resettlement. We aimed to identify risk factors and strategies in the approach to mental health assessment and to prevention and treatment of common mental health problems for immigrants in primary care. We searched and compiled literature on prevalence and risk factors for common mental health problems related to migration, the effect of cultural influences on health and illness, and clinical strategies to improve mental health care for immigrants and refugees. Publications were selected on the basis of relevance, use of recent data and quality in consultation with experts in immigrant and refugee mental health. The migration trajectory can be divided into three components: premigration, migration and postmigration resettlement. Each phase is associated with specific risks and exposures. The prevalence of specific types of mental health problems is influenced by the nature of the migration experience, in terms of adversity experienced before, during and after resettlement. Specific challenges in migrant mental health include communication difficulties because of language and cultural differences; the effect of cultural shaping of symptoms and illness behaviour on diagnosis, coping and treatment; differences in family structure and process affecting adaptation, acculturation and intergenerational conflict; and aspects of acceptance by the receiving society that affect employment, social status and integration. These issues can be addressed through specific inquiry, the use of trained interpreters and culture brokers, meetings with families, and consultation with community organizations. Systematic inquiry into patients' migration trajectory and subsequent follow-up on culturally appropriate indicators of social, vocational and family functioning over time will allow clinicians to recognize problems in adaptation and undertake mental health promotion, disease prevention or treatment interventions in a timely way.