A 23-year-old Somali refugee who says she was raped in a detention center in July and became pregnant has become an emotional focal point in the continuing dispute over Australia’s refugee policies.
SYDNEY — She is a 23-year-old Somali refugee who, like thousands before her, tried to reach Australia in a rickety boat that was intercepted at sea two years ago. She ended up in a detention center on Nauru, one of two remote Pacific islands where Australia sends asylum seekers. Her lawyers say she was raped in July and became pregnant.
Australians know little more about her, including what she looks like, the details of her ordeal or even her real name. But in recent days, the woman, known by the pseudonym Abyan, has become an emotional focal point in the continuing dispute over Australia’s refugee policies.
Critics of the government’s policy of preventing migrants from coming ashore are seizing on her case to highlight allegations of abuse in the detention centers, and on Nauru, where hundreds of migrants have been held.
Australia is responsible for the welfare of the asylum seekers it sends to Nauru. Last week, after Abyan’s lawyers said she wanted an abortion, which would be illegal there, the Australian government flew her to Sydney, where her pregnancy was to be terminated.
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But that did not happen. Instead, on Friday, a government-chartered plane flew her back to Nauru.
The government said that she had decided against an abortion. But her lawyers and refugee advocates who had met with her disputed that, saying the government whisked her out of Australia to forestall a court injunction that might have allowed her to stay.
“This is an appalling situation for this girl,” said Gillian Triggs, president of the Australian Human Rights Commission and a critic of the offshore detention program. “We do not know where the truth lies.”
Australia’s immigration minister, meanwhile, accused refugee advocates of putting forward “lies” and “fabrications” and said they were using Abyan to further their campaign against the government’s refugee policies.
On Nauru, the police commissioner has said that Abyan has not filed a complaint but that the police will seek to take her statement.
The story has become front-page news in Australia, where the zero-tolerance policy toward migrants who arrive by sea is a contentious issue. When migrant boats approaching Australian waters from Indonesia are intercepted, their passengers are taken to Nauru, or to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where Australia maintains another detention center. None are allowed to settle in Australia.
The government says the policy has saved lives by taking away the incentive to make the treacherous voyage. But it has been criticized as inhumane and has faced challenges in court; investigations have found conditions in the detention centers to be grim and even dangerous.
Government officials have been questioned in parliamentary hearings over the running of the centers. The new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, described reports of rape on Nauru as very alarming and said the government was committed to ensuring the safety and security of all refugees living in the community. But in Parliament, he restated that the government’s hard-line policy had stopped people from drowning at sea.
This month, the center on Nauru granted detainees freedom of movement on the island. But advocates for the migrants say that even those who, like Abyan, live outside the detention center face long periods in difficult conditions, inadequate health care and the risk of violence.
Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, said Abyan fled persecution and sexual violence in Somalia, where he said much of her family was killed in 2007 during the government’s war with Islamist extremists.
Rintoul, who met with Abyan during her short stay in Sydney last week, said she was deeply distressed at her situation.
“It is impossible to describe her anguish,” he said. “The cultural shame of what has happened to her, and her humiliation at the hands of the Australian government, which has sent her back to where she was raped.”
Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton, said Abyan had decided against an abortion after meeting with doctors and nurses at the Sydney detention center.
“After that decision was made, after the lady made the decision, having received all that consultation, the decision was then made to airlift the lady back to Nauru,” Dutton told ABC Radio.
But her attorney, George Newhouse, said Abyan had been “in no fit state to do anything” during her brief stay at the Villawood detention center in Sydney.
“She was unfit to fly to Australia,” Newhouse told ABC Radio, adding that she had lost 22 pounds. “It took two days in emergency in the Nauruan hospital for them to get her in a state to come to Australia. And what she simply had said to the nurse at Villawood was that I can’t have the operation today, I’m not well enough mentally and physically. I will tell you tomorrow or the next day.”
Advocates produced what they said was a statement from Abyan, sent after she returned to Nauru, in which she asserted, in a letter that was handwritten in block letters and in broken English, that she had never said she did not want a termination. She also said that she had not received counseling or been allowed to see her lawyer while in Sydney and that she had seen a nurse but not a doctor.
Nauru, a desolate island just south of the equator that was ravaged by decades of phosphate mining, has little arable land, limited fresh water and few economic prospects. The Australia-funded detention center, which is run by a private contractor, is one of its few employers, and critics say that Nauru’s economic dependence gives Australia effective control over the island.
“There is no one who can speak independently and with any depth on issues about the contractors or the detention centers,” said Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia. “They are closed to any outside scrutiny that would ensure a healthier set of arrangements.”
Triggs, of the Australian Human Rights Commission, said the uncertainty surrounding Abyan’s case underscored what she called the “core problem” of secrecy at the offshore detention centers, where a law passed this year makes it illegal for workers to disclose what happens there.
On Tuesday, The Australian, a leading newspaper, reported that it had interviewed Abyan on Nauru, where she is living with a Somali roommate in a makeshift accommodation. She told the newspaper that she still wanted to have an abortion.
“But I don’t want Australia,” it quoted her as saying. “I want to go to another country.”