Australia has a duty of care to refugees

Australia has a duty of care to refugees

2 November 2015

A Somali refugee who is pregnant as the result of an alleged rape was last Friday returned to Nauru without the abortion she was asking for. The woman, known as Abyan, was flown from Nauru to Australia to seek medical intervention, but was secretly returned after five days before having any treatment and without the knowledge of her lawyer.

Abyan, and all other asylum seekers in the Regional Processing Centres of Manus and Nauru, has been transferred to these centres by Australian authorities after arriving on Australian shores claiming Australia’s protection under the Refugee Convention. Australia therefore has a duty of care to the people in these centres, and in this case, they have failed in their duty.

Abyan was allegedly raped on 18 July and has been asking for a termination since 1 September. In the meantime, her most private trauma has been aired all over Australian and international news. Yet the reasons for Abyan’s delayed treatment and sudden removal from Australia remain unclear, with many reports coming from refugee advocates in contact with Abyan contradicting reports from the Immigration Department, who also like to refrain from commenting on individual cases or ‘operational matters’.

A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, urged Australia to “provide a decent option for Abyan [who] is in a very fragile mental and physical condition and is deeply traumatised by her experiences”. Barely a day later the Australian government has acted upon this call, with Immigration Minister Peter Dutton confirming that Abyan will be returning to Australia for whatever treatment she decides is necessary.

This quick and positive response to UN criticism is somewhat surprising. Earlier this year a UN report found that Australia was violating the rights of asylum seekers and breaching its obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In response, the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott claimed that Australia was 'sick of being lectured to by the UN'.

Perhaps Australia’s approach to UN criticism has changed with the change of Prime Minister. Since Prime Minister Turnbull has taken the reigns Foreign Minister Julie Bishop announced Australia’s bid to get a seat on the UN Human Rights Council 2018-2020. Ms Bishop stated that the UN plays a crucial role in today’s increasingly hostile world, for which it is often not recognised. A far cry from being 'sick of being lectured to'.

If Australia’s action in returning Abyan to Australia was motivated by a genuine concern then this would have happened much earlier in the situation. The fact that Australia acted promptly to the UN’s call to action reveals a positive change since Abbott’s leadership and rejoinders to the UN earlier this year. But this positive action could well be motivated by the desire to be seen as ‘a good international citizen’ in order to win a seat on the UN Human Rights Council. The true test will be whether Australia will be consistently proactive regarding refugee rights before the UN is forced to step in. Australia has a duty of care to the refugees that have sought our protection on our soil. This needs to be the priority of its policy decisions before our foreign policy concerns.

This article by PhD candidate Carly Gordon was  first published by SBS here.

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