Exactly How Badly Has Australia Treated Somali Refugee Abyan? Here’s A Full, Horrific Timeline Of Events
UPDATE: Amidst mounting public pressure, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed that Abyan will be returning to Australia to seek medical and psychological treatment.
[UPDATE October 28]: Amidst mounting public pressure, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has confirmed to Sky News this afternoon that Abyan will be returning to Australia for treatment.
“Initially she advised that she didn’t want to come back to Australia, but we’ve engaged medical support. Those doctors have spoken with her and she will travel to Australia and will seek some expert assistance from medical staff in Australia.”
In the interview, Dutton repeated claims he made earlier this month that, after seeing doctors, mental health nurses and interpreters, Abyan “came to a conclusion that she didn’t want the termination”, and was sent back to Nauru. (As you’ll see on the timeline below, this claim has been refuted by her lawyers, and by a signed letter from Abyan herself). He says she has since accepted the advice of medical experts to come to Australia and speak to a doctor about the termination, and to seek mental health support.
— James O'Doherty (@jmodoh) October 28, 2015
Dutton did not specify when Abyan would be returned: “I think the lady deserves her privacy,” he said, when asked. “If there was an allegation of rape made in Australia the victim would be treated with the utmost respect, and that’s what should happen in relation to these matters as well.”
Over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed a slight increase in the number of stories about asylum seekers suffering inconceivable tragedy while in the care of Australia’s detention system — a genre of news our government has really helped to grow over the past few years.
Much of this is because of Abyan: the pseudonym of a 23-year-old Somali refugee who is now pregnant, after claiming she was raped while detained at our processing facility in Nauru. (Not to be confused with the other Somali refugee who reported her alleged rape to Four Corners just last month).
You’ve likely read about Abyan. You may have signed a petition calling for her to be given access to an abortion. But through all the drip-fed information, vague government media releases, and conflicting statements between her and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, it’s been hard to grasp the full situation.
Here, with a hideous deep dive into all the spin and suffering, is what we know so far.
Abyan v Australia (To Date):
Abyan is allegedly raped on Nauru. It’s not known who the perpetrator is, or where exactly this took place.
Abyan is “deeply traumatised and unwell”. She reportedly loses 10kg in a month “due to trauma”, and is at one point found unconscious in her room.
Tuesday September 1
Abyan tells detention centre staff she’s pregnant as a result of rape, and wants an abortion. In the coming weeks, her lawyers start appealing to the Immigration Department to bring her to Australia. With abortion illegal in Nauru, this would be her only hope in obtaining a termination.
Tuesday October 6
Frustrated by the lack of government response, a letter from Abyan’s lawyers to Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton demands the issue be acted on by 5pm. After the deadline passes with no response, lawyer George Newhouse brings it to Fairfax.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with the system but their failure to respond comes across as cruel and heartless,” he says. “Time is quickly running out, this is not a joke, a traumatised and vulnerable woman’s health and safety is stake.”
Wednesday October 7
Newhouse launches a Change.org petition, calling specifically on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to bring Abyan to Australia for urgent treatment.
“This cruel and heartless act of neglect is barbaric — time is running out to help a vulnerable and traumatised young lady,” he says. “The Prime Minister wants Australia to be known as a country that respects women — we can start by helping this poor soul.”
With this, Opposition leader Bill Shorten makes his first comments on the case calling it a “travesty of justice”. After speaking to the woman’s lawyers, he advocates for her to be taken to Australia.
“For me this is a black-and-white matter,” he says. “It’s not a matter of governments acting like robots with no hearts.” (For the record, offshore detention is supported by both major parties).
Within a few days, the petition gains support from more than 35,000 people. Today that number stands at nearly double.
— Kristen Amiet (@KrissiAmiet) October 8, 2015
Friday October 9
When questioned about Abyan by reporters at Parliament House, Peter Dutton says, “If people require medical assistance … whether it is on Nauru or in Australia, they will receive it”. While refusing to further specify what that could mean for her case, he does suggest Abyan is currently too sick to travel.
Sunday October 11
Abyan is flown to Brisbane for medical care; her lawyer posts a celebratory message on the petition, thanking the public for their support.
“This is a huge relief,” he writes. “We will continue to monitor the situation and to fight for the treatment and care she requires [but] you made a real difference to her wellbeing!”
Monday October 12
Abyan is transferred to Villawood detention facility. The government claim she is reviewed by both a mental health nurse and primary care nurse. An interpreter is present.
Tuesday October 13
The government claim she is reviewed again by these medical professionals as well as a GP. An interpreter is present.
Wednesday October 14
The government claim she’s seen again by a nurse and a doctor. Speaking on The Project, Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre claims Abyan was taken to a clinic and had the termination procedure explained to her with the help of an interpreter over the phone, but was never seen by a qualified doctor.
Thursday October 15
The government claim she is seen by a GP, but there is no interpreter available. Pamela Curr claims she is instead seen by an in-house IHMS nurse, and confirms there is no interpreter present. Sources tell The Guardian that Abyan did not attend a scheduled appointment on this day, and others suggest this is because she asked for more time to decide whether to go ahead with the abortion.
Peter Dutton says Abyan “provided advice she didn’t wish to proceed with the termination“.
Friday October 16
Sources reveal plans to send Abyan back to Nauru, and her lawyers begin seeking a legal injunction to keep her here. In a letter to the Department of Immigration they write, “Our client has not decided to refuse a termination and you have completely misunderstood or misconstrued her position.”
“Our client has the right to counselling before a termination and to understand the procedure, that is all we have been seeking and to represent her position as a refusal is disingenuous and cruel.”
Lawyer George Newhouse requests he be allowed to speak directly to his client (which he has a legal right to do), but that never eventuates. Before the matter is brought before a federal court, it’s discovered Abyan is already on her way back to offshore detention.
The government send her back to Nauru via the Solomon Islands in a chartered RAAF jet, as opposed to the commercial flights usually used. The trip costs an estimated $130,000.
Aus spent $130,000 to fly Abyan back to Nauru on a chartered RAAF flight. Commercial seat about $1000: http://t.co/CWWJcAd6mM
— Ben Doherty (@BenDohertyCorro) October 19, 2015
As a result of reports from The Guardian and updates from various advocacy groups, the public outcry is instantaneous.
— ASRC (@ASRC1) October 16, 2015
— Kon Karapanagiotidis (@Kon__K) October 16, 2015
Are you proud of the way your government has treated Abyan, @TurnbullMalcolm?
— Mike (@phantomdiorama) October 16, 2015
Saturday October 17
In response to the outrage, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton releases a statement suggesting the condemnation is unjustified.
“The woman has decided not to proceed with the termination,” it reads. “Comments from some advocates to the contrary are a fabrication, while others appear to be using this woman’s circumstance for their own political agenda. They should be ashamed of their lies.”
This case is all made under the somewhat unfortunate title “misleading statements”
Sunday October 18
Abyan writes a letter to her lawyer refuting the government’s statement, and asks for it to be shared.
“I have been very sick,” she writes. “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.
“Please help me.”
Monday October 19
Hundreds of protesters gather outside the Department of Immigration in both Sydney and Melbourne, with speakers from the Greens, the Refugee Action Coalition, and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre pressuring the government to bring Abyan back.
— Catherine Strong (@hellharpy) October 19, 2015
— Mums4Refugees (@Mums4Refugees) October 19, 2015
With no further response from the government, Queenslanders hold a further protest at Peter Dutton’s electoral office on Tuesday morning. Another is planned for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, in a Senate Estimates hearing, a representative from the Immigration Department denies a RAAF jet was used to transport Abyan back to Nauru.
He doesn’t offer an alternative.
— Shane Bazzi (@shanebazzi) October 20, 2015
Tuesday, October 19
In an exclusive interview, The Australian report that Abyan is looking elsewhere for a termination.
“[She is] in a cramped room just across from the beach in one of the many clumps of makeshift refugee accommodation dotted around Nauru,” the article reads. “‘Yes, I still want an abortion,’ she said, agitated and distressed by the controversy her case has provoked. ‘But I don’t want Australia, I want to go to another country.’
“Another possible option for a termination is Papua New Guinea but there is no indication that any arrangements or formal requests have been made … Her future is now unclear.”
The writer of the piece is the paper’s controversial associate editor/man who very definitely does not have sex with dogs, Chris Kenny. He is the first Australian reporter to be granted access to the detention centre in 18 months, and has previously worked as a Liberal Party media adviser. When questioned about this by The Guardian, he replies, “If my public support for strong border protection measures helped sway Nauru’s decision [to grant a visa], so be it.”
This is something many journalists have a bit of an issue with.
lots of excellent reporters at the Aus. if you land Abyan scoop, why send a former Lib spinner and commentator? https://t.co/M3CRS0QL78
— michael safi (@safimichael) October 20, 2015
— Wendy Harmer (@wendy_harmer) October 20, 2015
Kenny’s son Liam, a Melbourne musician and a a vocal opponent of his father’s policies, has also criticised the move:
@chriskkenny no one is against transparency theyre against propagandic exploitation of an already traumatised woman you disgusting pig
— liam kenny (@kennykravitz69) October 20, 2015
In the hours since speaking to Chris Kenny, Abyan reportedly complains about being visited by the media and is transferred to a local Nauru hospital. She is now 15 weeks pregnant.
What The Government Is Saying Now:
Peter Dutton is lashing out at those attacking him. Speaking to Fran Kelly on Radio National on Monday, he suggested the young woman’s story was being used for “political gain” and that the government had done everything right with the information they’d been given.
“The advice to me was absolutely clear that the lady, after all of this consultation, had decided a particular course of action,” he said. “I’m very, very concerned about the privacy of this lady, but I’m dragged into this debate to clear up what I think is a political motivation by some of the advocates in this space.”
Kelly called him out on this. Regardless of the information he had, she suggested it went against common sense to send a sick woman back into detention, and that she may have needed more time to make this decision or was perhaps not in a fit state to communicate her wishes. Kelly asked if there was any possibility Abyan would be taken back to Australia, and the reluctant response did not reveal much: “We’ll make a decision in relation to individual cases based on the facts of the case.”
Further questions were put to the Immigration Department during a Senate Estimates hearing on Monday by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson Young, but the message was the same. The government remained steadfast they acted appropriately on the information they had.
Senate Estimates – why was ‘Abyan’ removed from the country wi…My questions to Immigration Department officials about ‘Abyan’ during Senate Estimates this morning. Their answers? Not good enough.
Posted by Senator Sarah Hanson-Young on Sunday, 18 October 2015
What Refugee Advocates Are Saying Now:
Appearing on Lateline over the weekend, Abyan’s lawyer continues to contest the government’s account, claiming she was never given access to a doctor or counsellor (both of whom are made available as standard procedure for any victim of sexual assault).
“[The government] have been totally negligent in her medical care on Nauru and here in Australia,” he said. “We have asked for the most basic level of care, consultation, counselling, support and understanding the process. That’s all she’s asked for and she didn’t get that.”
On 774 ABC Melbourne, Pamela Curr from the ASRC has verified this account. After being permitted to speak to Abyan for 20 minutes, Curr says the refugee had been scared and unfit to return to Nauru.
“I don’t feel well,” Abyan reportedly said. “I just need a little time. Please give me a little time to make a decision”.
Yesterday afternoon, Greens MP Adam Bandt took this argument to Parliament.
“This is a new low for this government and their persecution of the world’s most vulnerable people,” he said. “Abyan — traumatised, scared, and pregnant from being raped — did not receive the care she asked for and now she is being sent back to Nauru, the very place she was assaulted under Australia’s care. Tens of thousands of people have stood up and said they are horrified at this government’s endless cruelty to refugees. Minster Dutton must now allow Abyan to access the counselling and medical treatment that she requires.”
“Minister Dutton’s first response is to say ‘that other person is lying’. Well, he’s been shown out to have misled the public before, and if he really believes that’s the case, let the media in and show what’s been going on in these hellholes.”
What All This Means:
No matter what you believe actually happened in this case, that last point from Bandt is a pretty good one. With Australia’s detention facilities still shrouded in secrecy as a result of limited media access and laws which actively penalise whistleblowing, instances of abuse and suffering such as this regularly slip past the voting public, meaning the victims could be missing out on the help they deserve, as the perpetrators going unpunished.
This week the Immigration Department confirmed to a Senate committee that 14 cases of sexual assault have been reported at our Manus Island detention facility over the past 18 months, and none of them have led to prosecutions. This adds to a further 213 physical assaults and 798 reported instances of abusive behaviour — to say nothing of the similarly staggering numbers from Nauru, or the hundreds of incidents of self-harm.
Abyan may well be the most widely reported-on victim of Australia’s offshore detention regime, and the public response to her case has been near-unprecedented. We shouldn’t have to wade through all this to know her full story.
Feature image via Peter Dutton/Facebook.