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Australia's Mistreatment of a Pregnant, Allegedly Raped Refugee

The case of a 23-year-old Somali refugee named Abyan, who became pregnant after she was allegedly raped by an unknown assailant on Nauru, should be extremely concerning for Australians.
October 22, 2015, 5:30pm
The Republic of Nauru Hospital. Photo by Mark Isaacs

Mark Isaacs is a former Salvation Army employee at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre. He later wrote about the experience in his widely-acclaimed book, The Undesirables: Inside Nauru. Here Mark evaluates the government's handling of Abyan.

The case of a 23-year-old Somali refugee named Abyan, who became pregnant after she was allegedly raped by an unknown assailant on Nauru, should be extremely concerning for Australians. Not only has the Australian government treated a vulnerable woman callously, but we have once again seen "bigger picture" government asylum seeker policy fail the individual.

Read: The Number of Ways in Which Australia Has Failed Female Refugees Is Staggering

To recap the events of the past months: After being allegedly raped in July 2015, Abyan told health professionals in Nauru in September that she was pregnant as a result of the rape. Abyan spent several weeks requesting the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) transfer her to Australia to terminate her pregnancy. During that time, it is reported that Abyan was not eating or drinking, and had lost more than 22 pounds.

While DIBP deliberated on her fate it became clear she could not have the procedure completed while remaining in the offshore processing system. Termination of pregnancy is illegal on Nauru except in circumstances to save the life or preserve the health of the mother. There is no clause for the termination of a pregnancy resulting from rape. According to leaked documents from the health services contractor on Nauru—the International Health and Medical Services—refugees needing advanced medical care will no longer be flown to Australia for treatment but instead be flown to Papua New Guinea. However, in this particular case, Abyan had already surpassed the legal time threshold of 12 weeks for terminations of pregnancies in Papua New Guinea. This meant that her only option for a termination would be in Australia.

As her health deteriorated and as public pressure mounted, the government transferred her to Australia for treatment. Then, in a strange turn of events, less than a week after arriving in Australia, Abyan was secretly flown to the Solomon Islands and then on to Nauru, having not received a termination.

Minister for Immigration Dutton claims she received counseling and extensive healthcare during her five day stay in Villawood and claims she, "decided not to proceed with the termination." The decision was then made to fly her back to Nauru.

The crux of the decision to remove her from the country is a collection of contradictory hearsay.

Abyan's lawyer, George Newhouse, refutes these assertions by Minister Dutton.

"Our client has not decided to refuse a termination and you have completely misunderstood or misconstrued her position which is as set out in my letter... of 14 October 2015," he wrote in an email to senior officials at DIBP.

DIBP have been accused of chartering an RAAF jet for $130,000 [$94,000] to whisk Abyan out of the country secretly to avoid a pending court injunction that would attempt to keep her in Australia.

Newhouse said the government's strategy in forcibly removing Abyan was aimed "at avoiding due process and any scrutiny."

What makes the events surrounding the deportation of Abyan so difficult to follow is that at the crux of the decision to remove her from the country is a collection of contradictory hearsay. Two disparate cases are demanding we trust them. One is requesting protection from harm. The other is purposefully sidestepping the courts to try and return a traumatized woman to harm. It's a hard case to argue for Minister Dutton. If Dutton and his department want the Australian people to believe them, they have to prove they're trustworthy and that involves being open and transparent with their treatment of refugees.

The ambiguity of the facts in this case is indicative of our offshore detention system. It is clear that we need a politically independent statutory authority in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. However, considering the government's recent lambasting of Gillian Triggs and the Australian Human Rights Commission, this seems like a distant reality at best.

The government is determined not to be emotionally manipulated into giving asylum seekers an avenue of escape.

The greater, overarching theme to this story is the government's 'the ends justify the means' approach to border control. Days prior to Abyan's deportation back to Nauru, Minister Dutton referenced a "racket" of 200 asylum seekers who had been brought from offshore processing centers to Australia on medical grounds and then sought injunctions to prevent them being returned to Nauru. The government is determined not to be emotionally manipulated into giving asylum seekers an avenue of escape from Nauru and Abyan has become the political shuttlecock in this struggle.

In this particular case, Dutton has made a mistake. Abyan is a poor choice to make an example of and Dutton's implication that asylum seekers who try whatever means they can to escape the hellhole of Nauru are acting illegally or dishonestly is distasteful. If we continue to believe that cruel treatment in offshore processing is the only way to manage our borders then Dutton may have a point. However, the notion that "we are saving lives at sea" is being lost in the countless horrifying stories of abuse that leak into Australian living rooms via the mouths of Australian whistleblowers despite the government's best efforts to threaten them with jail terms. During my time in Nauru I learned to distrust the government's philosophy that the greater good overrides the individual. I'm glad to see that more and more Australians are learning the same lesson.


Related: Watch VICE News' film 'Refugees' Dead End in Italy'


Hidden amongst this trial by media is the one person who should matter most. Abyan. A 23-year-old woman. A refugee. An alleged rape victim. A woman requesting a termination of a pregnancy she claims was caused by her rapist. When you push aside all the political power games you are left with a desperate and vulnerable woman who is not receiving the treatment she needs. We have a duty of care to protect her and while in Nauru the government cannot guarantee her safety.

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