By Madeline GleesonNon-fictionNewSouth Publishing

Offshore: Behind the Wire on Manus and Nauru

What has happened on Nauru and Manus since Australia began its most recent offshore processing regime in 2012?

This essential book provides a comprehensive and uncompromising overview of the first three years of offshore processing since it recommenced in 2012. It explains why offshore processing was re-established, what life is like for asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus, what asylum seekers, refugees and staff in the offshore detention centres have to say about what goes on there, and why the truth has been so hard to find. In doing so, it goes behind the rumours and allegations to reveal what is known – and what still is not known – about Australia’s offshore detention centres.

Portrait of Madeline Gleeson

Madeline Gleeson

Madeline Gleeson is a lawyer and Research Associate at the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. She holds a Master in International Law from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, which she completed after being awarded the prestigious John Monash scholarship in 2012. Madeline also holds a Bachelor in International Studies and Bachelor of Laws with First Class Honours from the University of New South Wales, and a Diploma of Political Studies from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Aix en Provence, France.

Madeline has extensive experience working with forcibly displaced people around the world. She has worked on statelessness, refugees, human trafficking, labour migration and land grabbing with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Cambodia, and with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) in Geneva. She also has human rights and refugee experience in South Africa and Indonesia.

Judges’ report

This compelling book is essential reading as Australia grapples with one of the most conflicting moral and political issues of our time: how we respond to people seeking asylum in our country. Madeline Gleeson presents a comprehensive view of the first three years of Australia’s offshore processing policies and practices from 2012. She draws on official statements, media reports, parliamentary inquiries, and interviews with those who’ve seen or experienced the brutal human cost first-hand. The damaging effects of Australia’s offshore processing are made clear in this important book that informs, but also asks questions that still demand answers.


Truth had been scarce over the past three years, but was it the ‘real victim’ in all this? As 2015 drew to a close, the lack of truth, transparency or accountability, the political agendas, the rhetoric and the hyperbole, culminated in one story – with one ‘real victim’ – that stood out among the rest: Abyan. Twenty-three years old, alone, another victim of rape on Nauru, pregnant.

The young Somali refugee had limited options. It was not possible to terminate her pregnancy on Nauru, and the Australian government was said to be resisting her pleas for a transfer to Australia. In the meantime Abyan refused to make a formal complaint to police. Nauru was a small island, with an even smaller refugee population. She would not be hard to find and was ‘understandably afraid of reprisals’.

In early September Abyan first informed Connect Settlement Services, the refugee settlement service providers on Nauru, that she wanted a termination, but it would take a further six weeks for her to be brought back to Australia. The department blamed the delay in part on Abyan herself. Neil Skill, first assistant secretary of detention services for the department, said that medical consultations ‘and so on’ had been offered a number of times, but that ‘it was difficult to get the individual to engage with them’.

People close to Abyan had a different version of the story. Her lawyers said they had written to the department and IHMS in September to notify them formally of Abyan’s request for a termination, but no response had been forthcoming. They also described a young woman who was very vulnerable, very sick, and not receiving proper medical care on the island. By the time the Australian government finally did approve her transfer back to Australia, Abyan had been found unconscious in her room and needed two days in the emergency department at the Nauruan hospital before being declared fit enough to fly.

On Sunday 11 October, Abyan finally touched down in Australia. ‘She was not medically fit to fly; she was having some stomach difficulties,’ the department acknowledged when explaining why she had not been flown in a few days earlier.‘She was in no fit state to do anything. She had lost 10 kilograms,’ added her lawyer, George Newhouse.

From here, the stories diverged. According to the department Abyan had ‘a number of engagements’ with mental health nurses, general practitioner nurses and doctors over the coming days.The department and Minister Dutton reported that she had decided not to go through with the termination, or to schedule another appointment for the following week, and therefore there had been no reason for her to stay in Australia.By the Friday night she was gone: back to Nauru, still pregnant.

Advocates for Abyan gave a very different account of these five days. She was dazed, confused, and obviously still unwell. She felt like she needed more time to get healthy, receive proper counselling, and fully understand the procedure she was about to undergo. She had apparently said to the nurse at the Villawood detention centre in Sydney: ‘I can’t have the operation today, I’m not well enough mentally and physically, I’ll tell you tomorrow or the next day.’Abyan wrote:

I was raped on Nauru. I have been very sick. 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. Please help me.

Her lawyers said they had advised the department of Abyan’s position – both verbally and in writing – to no avail. Abyan had been taken back offshore before they got a chance to see her again.

Minister Dutton refused to believe that Abyan had not wanted the termination. ‘Comments from some advocates to the contrary are a fabrication, while others appear to be using this woman’s circumstance for their own political agenda,’ he declared. ‘They should be ashamed of their lies.’But the rhetoric and allegations were no match for written evidence. Internal department emails obtained through a freedom of information request would later confirm that government officers did know that Abyan had not in fact decided against the termination and that all she had said was not yet. On the morning of Thursday 15 October, the day before Abyan was flown back to Nauru, an email that appeared to have been sent from an IHMS employee to senior department officials noted that Abyan ‘did make it clear that she hasn’t completely changed her mind and understands she can access the procedure (in NSW) up to 20 weeks’.

On Monday 19 October, when Abyan was back in Nauru, the department was again notified that she might have been deported prematurely. Another email, also apparently from an IHMS employee, read: ‘I asked her (more than once) whether she had changed her mind and no longer wanted a TOP [termination of pregnancy]. She consistently said that she still wanted to have a TOP, she just didn’t want it that day or the following week.’At a Senate hearing that same day, Senator Hanson-Young demanded answers. Why had a 23-year-old rape victim, physically and mentally unwell, been rushed out of the country so urgently, and how could the department explain the alternative version of events given by Abyan and her lawyers? Had anyone in the department made an effort to speak to Abyan directly and try to understand what she wanted and needed at that time?

Neil Skill argued that it had been necessary to charter a private jet to remove Abyan immediately because of the ‘risk’ she would pose on an ordinary flight – allegedly a risk of ‘noncompliance and disrupting the airline’. Department secretary Michael Pezzullo said he presumed Abyan would have come to Australia with a ‘clear view’ that she wished to go through with the termination, so given her refusal to book an appointment and the fact that she had no other right to remain in Australia, it was reasonable for her to have been deported immediately. ‘She did not meet your abortion deadline, so that is it – fly her out of the country?’ demanded Senator Hanson-Young. ‘It is pretty harsh.’

Abyan would eventually be brought back to Australia, but only after urgent and insistent calls for the government to do so by advocates and the United Nations. Her longterm prospects would be no clearer, though. She, like all the others, would still be trapped in the interminable waiting for a solution that might never be found. What next?

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