Free Abyan, end abuse of refugees now

October 23, 2015
Perth rally for refugee rights, October 24. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

New revelations shed light on the cruelty being inflicted on refugees in Australia's offshore detention centres. They come just days after the Department of Immigration and Border Protection sent a pregnant Somali refugee woman back to Nauru where she had been raped.

Abyan, as she is known, was transferred to Villawood detention centre on October 11 from Nauru where she was going to speak with doctors about her desire for a termination.

However, Abyan was abruptly sent back five days later. Immigration minister Peter Dutton alleges she was returned to Nauru because she had decided not to proceed with an abortion.

Abyan rejected his claim in a statement made public by her lawyers. “I have never said that I did not want a termination. I never saw a doctor. I saw a nurse at a clinic but there was no counselling. I [also] saw a nurse at Villawood, but there was no interpreter. I asked but was not allowed to talk with my lawyer,” Abyan said.

Refugee Action Coalition (RAC) spokesperson Ian Rintoul said on October 16 that when he visited Abyan in Villawood, she had told him: “I cannot go back to where this happened to me; I cannot go to where I was raped. What happened to me there [on Nauru] is what caused me to run away from Somalia. What happened to me in Somalia is what happened to me there [in Nauru].”

Since being returned to Nauru, Abyan has faced aggressive questioning by Nauruan police and Australian journalists (see article on page 4).

Rintoul said on October 21 that this has “left her in such a distressed situation that she asked if she could be taken into the detention compounds to gain some protection and security”.

“This new round of distress has only been possible because, against all expert professional advice, the Australian government returned Abyan to the place of her sexual assault ... [this] only adds to the anguish that surrounds her situation”, Rintoul said.

Louise Newman, a professor of women's mental health at the University of Melbourne, backed this view.

In a statement released on the same day Newman said: “The treatment of a 23-year-old pregnant rape survivor from Nauru highlights the profound lack of understanding of the psychological impact of rape and trauma …”

“This response on the part of Government sets women's rights back 50 years, to a time when rape victims were dismissed, denigrated and belittled with huge social and psychological consequences.

“To treat any woman in this way is wrong but this is magnified when we treat a vulnerable and powerless refugee with such contempt.”

Unfortunately, Abyan is far from being the only refugee to have been raped or assaulted while in an Australian offshore detention centre.

Immigration staff told a Senate committee hearing that over the last 18 months there have been 14 sexual assaults, 213 physical assaults and 798 instances of abusive behaviour at the Manus Island detention centre, ABC News reported on October 20. Of the 14 sexual assault cases, none have led to prosecutions.

A further 10 reports of sexual assault involving children in detention, nine involving adults in detention and 10 involving refugees living outside the detention centre were reported on Nauru.

ABC's Lateline October 21 program covered one of these cases, that of an Iranian asylum seeker known as Nazanin.

Nazanin was found bloodied and bruised by a passerby after being raped in May this year. While the passerby immediately called local police, they took several hours to respond.

According to a source working at the detention centre who spoke with Lateline, but chose to remain anonymous due to laws that threaten detention centre employees with jail for speaking out, police returned Nazanin to the centre “after she'd been made to sit in the back of a police wagon half-naked. This is while the Nauru police sat and watched fireworks for 45 minutes.

“When she got there, she was taken to a room and then she was basically just dressed in her bra and underwear. The Nauru police didn't even offer her a blanket or clothing or anything to cover her up.”

Nazanin was so shaken that she chose to spend the next three months in isolation, where she refused to eat or and drink. She also attempted suicide.

She was subsequently flown out to a Brisbane hospital, with the promise that her mother and brother would shortly follow. However, two months later, they are still on Nauru.

This is despite Dutton saying, less than a month ago, that it was policy to allow family members to travel with asylum seekers to Australia if they required medical treatment.

Psychiatrist Helen Driscoll, a leading trauma expert who has been in contact with Nazanin's family, told Lateline: “One of the profound treatment needs when somebody is traumatised is to reverse what occurred during the trauma. That is, there needs to be safety, there needs to be not isolation, there needs to be connectedness, warmth — and dignity. And so it's utterly imperative that the family be together.”

In response to Lateline's request by for an interview with Dutton, the immigration department sent a statement that said: “Nazanin has been receiving appropriate medical and mental health support and care.”

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