Dignity Denied to Refugee Women in Detention Centers
By Jenna Klein
Photo credit: United Nations Photo
Only four months ago, in October 2015, the Australian government secretly flew a pregnant Somali refugee back to one of its immigration detention centers on the island of Nauru, preventing her from terminating her pregnancy. The woman, known by the pseudonym Abyan, was raped at the detention center in July, but because of the restrictive Nauruan abortion laws she requested to be flown to Australia in order to terminate her pregnancy. While her request was granted and she was brought to Australia, there was a “miscommunication” that led to her abrupt removal back to Nauru. The Australian government claims that Abyan refused treatment by declining to attend a medical consultation, but Abyan and her lawyers deny this allegation and protest that she only wanted further counseling.
After receiving international pressure to resolve the situation and advice from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to find a “decent” healthcare outcome for Abyan, the Australian government agreed to fly her back for further counseling and treatment. While Abyan’s particular story is troubling for many reasons, her case highlights broader international human rights violations in the treatment of female refugees and asylum-seekers, not only in Australia but worldwide. This story draws attention to the high rate of unprosecuted sexual violence and assault taking place within refugee camps and is indicative of the lack of reproductive rights and justice for refugees and asylum-seekers around the world.
A Note on Indefinite Detention
As fellow student contributor Sarah Hunter wrote last October, before the story about Abyan was even reported, human rights groups have condemned Australia’s policy of indefinite detention centers as a violation of international refugee laws. Prolonged detention can have grave physical and psychological consequences. These types of detention facilities have been denounced for their inhumane conditions and use of unnecessary violence. Moreover, refugees and asylum-seekers are inherently a more vulnerable population due to the conditions which forced them to leave their country of origin in the first place as well as their attenuated status in a given host country. And within this highly susceptible group, there are particularly vulnerable sub-categories of detained individuals who require heightened attention and care. While Amnesty International identified four of these sub-groups in their report (Stateless persons, Children, Family Groups and ‘Pacific Solution’ detainees), I believe that there is a larger group that deserves special consideration: Women.
Sexual Violence in Refugee Camps
Refugee women are entitled to and require far greater protection against sexual assault than they are currently afforded. Women often are forced to flee their homes due to extreme sexual violence, only to experience further assault and abuse as refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued guidelines in 1995 for the prevention and response to sexual violence issues for refugees. However, the prevalence in recent years of stories like Abyan’s is alarming. Even more troubling is the fact that many women, including Abyan, are too afraid of retaliation to report the crimes. This means that in addition to the number of reported cases, there are many more women suffering silently under violent attack as they try to gain access to safety in a new home.
Women are subjected to sexual violence and abuse not just from other refugee men in the camp but also at the hands of government and humanitarian officials. This obviously creates serious issues relating to execution of effective protection and prosecution policies. So while numerous international treaties and conventions work to provide protection for the rights of refugee women, continued international attention and support is required to adequately attend to the problems with their implementation and to provide uninhibited access to justice for these women. In December, in response to the consistent allegations of human rights abuses and sexual assault, concerned citizens circulated a petition urging Australia to ratify the UN’s protocol against torture, which would allow UN inspection of immigration detention centers. Countries like Australia with large populations of refugee and asylum-seekers need to address the human rights abuses taking place in their offshore refugee camps and the international community must hold them accountable.
Reproductive Rights and Justice for Refugees
International law clearly establishes reproductive rights for refugees. Again, UNHCR issued guidelines for the specific protection of refugee women. Moreover, reproductive rights for all human beings, including refugees and internally displaced individuals, were firmly recognized in the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994. However, just because the international community has acknowledged the right and identified a population in need of extra protection does not mean that countries have ensured effective care or protection for the sexual and reproductive health of these women. The truth is that many crucial reproductive health interventions for refugees, such as emergency contraception and access to safe abortion services, are surrounded with such ideological controversy that providing proper care becomes extremely difficult, if not practically impossible.
Without adequate services available, the acknowledgment of reproductive rights as fundamental international human rights is without force. Abyan’s story provides one example of the severe and disturbing consequences this lack of care can have. Another example emerged from the same refugee camp only weeks after Abyan’s story was released. Medical authorities on Nauru refused to send a refugee to Australia for a complex birth procedure, despite insistence that her and her baby’s health were both in extreme danger. While Australia cited its policy that refugee women must give birth on Nauru, doctors at the Nauru Hospital desperately scoured the Internet (specifically, LinkedIn) for a specialist who would fly to the island to provide the care that was required to save the lives of the woman and her child. The fact that medical professionals were forced to resort to such extreme measures demands closer international scrutiny of the quality of reproductive care that is offered to refugee women. Women who have already suffered unbelievable trauma, women whose precarious immigration status affords them little to no control over their reproductive choices, and women whose rights we have committed to protecting as an international community.
Abyan’s experiences serve an important purpose as they prompt the international community to examine the severe human rights violations associated with the treatment of refugees in indefinite detention, sexual assault in refugee camps and reproductive rights for refugee women. These are issues of equality and human dignity. Non-citizens should have access to the same quality of fundamental health and justice services as citizens. And women deserve to retain control over their reproductive choices and bodily integrity, despite their immigration status. Refugee women represent one of the most vulnerable populations in the world and the international community has an affirmative duty to protect their rights and bodies from systematic, institutionalized abuse.
Jenna Klein is a J.D. candidate at Berkeley Law. She is a student contributor for Travaux.