October 23, 2015 | brisbane times
A young, vulnerable and traumatised woman who sought protection in Australia has been very badly let down.
One solitary question was asked in the national Parliament this week about an issue that goes to the heart of Australia’s self-image as the compassionate country of the fair go. It came from the Labor opposition, but could just as easily have been a Dorothy Dixer from a Coalition MP.
“Can the minister please provide the House with information on the government decisions taken in relation to the pregnant Somali asylum seeker who was recently transported between Australia and Nauru?” Richard Marles asked Immigration Minister Peter Dutton.
If the opposition, any opposition, has used the word “please” when pressing the government for information in question time, I, for one, am struggling to recall it.
Marles called her an asylum seeker, when in fact she is a refugee who has been found to have a genuine fear of persecution if returned to Somalia. He neglected to mention she was single, with a complicated medical history, and that she maintains the pregnancy is the result of being raped on July 18 after her release from detention on Nauru.
His question was open-ended, rather than focused on why it had taken so long to bring the woman to Australia after she requested an abortion (which is unlawful on Nauru), and why she was returned on a charter flight after just five days, at significant cost.
No wonder Dutton began his response by thanking Marles very much for the question, and “very much for the way he framed the question as well”.
Dutton then set out to counter the claims by lawyer George Newhouse, that the woman known as Abyan (not her real name) had received totally inadequate treatment since the alleged rape, both on Nauru and during her short stay in Australia.
The minister told how she saw a primary health nurse on arrival in Brisbane on October 11 and how, in subsequent days, her situation was reviewed by a mental health nurse and a GP, usually with an interpreter present, before she said that she did not wish to proceed with the abortion and was returned to Nauru.
But something was lost amid the claim and counter-claim: a young, vulnerable and traumatised woman who sought protection in Australia has been very badly let down by the system, not once but at almost every turn.
What is left is a swag of unanswered questions that go to the heart of the arrangement between the Australian and Nauru governments: Why was Abyan reluctant to report the alleged assault to Nauruan police? What level of care did she receive after the pregnancy was confirmed on August 25, prompting her decision to seek a termination? Why did it take so long for her to be brought to Australia? Why were her only interactions with nurses and a GP (or GPs) in Australia?
The answer to the threshold question, Abyan has told supporters in Australia, is that she feared going to the Nauruan police, did not want anyone to know about the assault and only revealed it when the pregnancy was confirmed.
Her reticence is explained by the experience of a 23-year-old Iranian, whose shocking story was told on ABC TV’s Lateline this week and is a case study in worst practice when it comes to dealing with sexual assault.
The more troubling question is why Abyan was denied access to mental-health and other specialists to help her make an informed decision on the termination in Australia. Why just a GP and a mental-health nurse?
Abyan’s lawyer wanted her to be able to discuss all her options in terms of the termination, with the same level of care afforded to Australian women in similar situations. But Australian officials saw the question of options through a very different prism.
“Her option is to be afforded the treatment, which is what she sought,” is how Michael Pezzullo, the secretary of the Department of Immigration and Border Protection, put it to a Senate committee. “There is no other option available for her in terms of any other basis upon which to stay in Australia.”
The context for this response was offered by Dutton a week earlier, when he declared: “The racket that’s been going on here is that people, at the margins, come to Australia from Nauru, the government’s then injuncted and we can’t send them back to Nauru – and there are over 200 people in that category.”
In Abyan’s case, lawyers did seek an injunction to delay her deportation, but it was all about giving her access to health professionals. It had nothing to do about her seeking to stay permanently in Australia. It was abandoned because she was already on a plane to Nauru.
Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young asked many of the right questions during the Senate committee hearing this week, including how Abyan was feeling after being returned to Nauru.
She was told that Abyan was “engaging well” and “in a positive way”, with support and health services on the island, and “talking of her future on Nauru”. This was not the message from Chris Kenny, the Australian journalist, who reported that Abyan was “agitated and distressed” when he knocked on her door and that she still wanted a termination, but no longer in Australia.
Hanson-Young has called on the government to appoint an independent advocate or guardian to represent the interests of Abyan and others in similar situations. It’s a good idea.
There is also a compelling case for asking Philip Moss, who investigated allegations of sexual assault within the processing centre on Nauru and reported in February, to examine how well his recommendations have been implemented.
John Brayley, the highly regarded inaugural surgeon general of the Australian Border Force, should also be tasked with reviewing medical services on Nauru and for those in detention and in transit accommodation on Manus Island, including services to victims of sexual assault.
But the inescapable conclusion is that Abyan’s story is simply further evidence that the centres on Nauru and Manus are unsustainable, and that both continue to damage vulnerable people for no other purpose than to deter boat arrivals.
“I’m despairing of it, to be honest. I just think we’ve lost the plot,” says former Australian of the Year and eminent psychiatrist Patrick McGorry, who believes the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull provides an opportunity for a better way.
Maybe it does, but the prospects are grim unless hard questions are asked and honest answers are given.