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How we were misled about Abyan's case

By Kellie Tranter - posted Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The case of Abyan, the 23-year old Somali refugee who was sexually assaulted while hitchhiking on Nauru, and who came to Australia for an abortion and subsequently was deported, generated conflicting versions of what she wanted, how she was treated and why. Documents about her case obtained under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws now reveal how the Department of Immigration & Border Protection (DIBP) and the Minister for Immigration & Border Protection, Peter Dutton, misled the public by omission.

In a press release dated 17 October 2015 Minister Dutton accused legal advocates for Abyan of fabrications, political agendas and lies. In that same press release Minister Dutton stated 'The woman has decided not to proceed with the termination.' That assertion was far to general, unqualified and patently incorrect according to the information known to his Department. Yet it's not the first time Minister Dutton has used extreme yet ambiguous language to describe the intentions of those seeking to protect human rights only to be caught wrong-footed courtesy of the actions taken by senior bureaucrats in his Department.

The FOI documents reveal that on 1 September 2015 Abyan first disclosed to a Connect Settlement Services Case Manager that she had been sexually assaulted. She did not want the assault reported to the Nauruan police and was referred to International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) who were first made aware of her request for termination of pregnancy on 3 September 2015.


On 14 September 2015 the DIBP received advice that Abyan wished to undergo a termination of pregnancy. Three days later IHMS provided the DIBP with a Request for Medical Movement to Australia for the purpose of undergoing termination of pregnancy services. The Request noted that 'Should she [Abyan] not be transferred, there are risks of deteriorating mental health and psychological distress relating to an unwanted pregnancy under these circumstances.'

Over two weeks later an urgent letter urging access to termination of pregnancy, presumably sent by Abyan's lawyers, was raised by Peter Dutton's chief of staff, Steve Ingram, with Cheryl-ann Moy (DIBP First Assistant Secretary Children, Community & Settlement Services Division), Neil Skill (DIBP First Assistant Secretary Detention Services Support Group) and Amanda Little (DIBP Assistant Secretary Detention Health Services). Minister Dutton was seeking 'some quick advice on options.'

The email response from Mr Skill was to 'continue to seek on-island solution for the next few days, mindful of the implications of delays and subsequent treatment options.' In that same email Mr Skill asked 'Can we revisit on-island possibilities with Nauru before resorting to Australian based treatment?'

On 6 October 2015 Mr Skill and Ms Little received an email from the Assistant Director, Health Capability and Scrutiny Section Health Services Branch [name redacted] attaching a Minute which recommended the transfer of Abyan to Australia for termination services. Interestingly the Minute suggests that 'there is a risk that once in Australia she [Abyan] will join legal action which would prevent her return to Nauru after completion of medical treatment. High profile anti-detention and anti-regional processing advocates have been lobbying for the provision of termination services and will continue to lobby publicly, including referencing the alleged sexual assault.'

Although Mr Skill agreed to the transfer of Abyan to Australia the same day, it was the content of the Minute which created the framework for Departmental suspicion of Abyan and her intentions.

On 8 October 2015 Michael Pezzullo, Secretary of the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection, emailed Pip De Veau of the Border force legal department, but its contents have been redacted.


On 14 October 2015 there were numerous emails between Departmental officials trying to ascertain what, if any, decisions had been made by Abyan in relation to her treatment. If Abyan had declined the termination of her pregnancy at Marie Stopes International Australia and written confirmation to that effect was provided, plans were to be put in place to return her to Nauru. It appears that legal advice was provided by the AAT and Removals Injunctions Section of the DIBP but it also has been redacted.

In an email from Mr Skill to James Watson (DIBP Commander, Detention Operations) and Clive Murray (DIBP Strategic Border Command) dated 14 October 2015 Mr Skill asked 'Can we please be prepared to return this lady to Nauru as soon as Tuesday next week, in the event that she declines to have her procedure? Are we aware of any undertakings to not remove her without notice?….'

After receiving an email from Cindy Briscoe (Deputy Commissioner Support Group Australian Border Force) expressing concern that 'We will need to keep a focus on this case as it is sure to continue to get a lot of external attention' Mr Skill confirmed that 'IHMS will provide counselling to her [Abyan] today if possible, to allow her to come to a decision about proceeding with the termination. We have retained the procedure appointment for Friday. If she decides to proceed, she will then be returned to Nauru as soon as medically fit to travel. If she decides to not proceed, we will make arrangements to have her return to Nauru ASAP. If she continues to vacillate, we will make a decision early next week about return to Nauru. I think the lawyer is buying time so he can seek legal intervention. Amanda, anything else?'

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About the Author

Kellie Tranter is a lawyer and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter

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