The appalling saga of the pregnant Somali woman known by the pseudonym of “Abyan” shows the urgent need for some neutral watchdog in such a situation to ensure the person’s interests are protected and what is done is transparent.
Abyan, alleging she was raped, asked to come from Nauru to Australia for an abortion. The government brought her here, but after several days she was flown back on Friday without having had the procedure. What happened while she was in the country is the subject of starkly conflicting claims.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, who earlier cited privacy constraints in refusing to talk about the case, is now providing a highly detailed account (though lamenting he feels he has to breach confidentiality).
Dutton lists the woman’s various contacts with doctors and nurses, mostly with an interpreter present. The government says this included counselling. Abyan had, Dutton said, made it clear that she did not want an abortion or another appointment.
But in a public letter put out on Sunday, the 23-year-old Abyan has insisted: “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 saw a nurse at Villawood but there was no interpreter. I asked but was not allowed to talk with my lawyer.” She added: “Please help me”.
It’s clear that the government was anxious to return Abyan as soon as it believed she was not going to undertake an abortion because it feared an injunction could be granted to prevent her departure.
Dutton alleges the system is being gamed by lawyers seeking injunctions when people come to Australia for medical treatment for themselves or their families. There was in fact a move for an injunction to stop Abyan leaving but by the time the matter got to court she was gone.
According to one of her lawyers, George Newhouse, Abyan is 14 weeks pregnant. He and she have both said she was very ill before being brought to Australia.
Dutton, feeling the heat over this woman’s case, is indicating that the government would be willing to bring her back to Australia for a termination, while being adamant that there is no way she can get to stay here.
It is impossible to reconcile the conflicting accounts. We can presume Dutton’s list of the appointments is accurate. But what the woman wanted then or wants now to do about terminating or continuing the pregnancy is another matter.
For many women in quite ordinary circumstances, deciding whether to have an abortion is difficult at best and traumatic at worst. Abyan’s circumstances and the pressures upon her are extraordinary.
The government should provide Abyan with a female counsellor to spend a reasonable amount of time with her on Nauru, helping her work through what she now feels is best for herself.
If she desires an abortion, it would seem better for her to be able to make that decision in Nauru and then come to Australia. To undertake another journey and be again in a state of uncertainty surely would just add to her emotional and health problems. If she has in fact backed away from terminating the pregnancy, the counsellor would give support at an incredibly difficult time.
Apart from the counsellor for this particular case, a new position of public guardian is needed, who would act as a monitor when people are brought to Australia for medical treatment, to make sure their rights are properly preserved and, when there are disputes, that the facts can be independently established. The monitoring should be done in real time, not after the event.
The role of such a monitor should be a broader part of Australia’s remit in Nauru and Manus Island too, though the government likes to pretend, disingenuously, that it is at arms length from much of what happens in those places.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Attorney-General George Brandis formally launched Australia’s candidacy for election to the United Nations Human Rights Council for 2018-20 – at a function attended by Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs. Triggs was persona non grata with the Abbott government, which tried to get her to resign. That was then.
Needless to say, mention of “Nauru” and “Manus” did not cross the lips of the ministers in their speeches about Australia’s interest in, and record on, human rights.
But doing something about greater oversight of the rights and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus would be a good gesture in Australia’s campaign for the council. An even better one would be to get people out of these places and settled in third countries – a challenge the government has so far found beyond it.