"It wouldn't happen to a woman in Australia, regardless of what her nationality was, it beggars belief. It's an appalling way to treat someone." Photo: Getty Images
Nazanin, in a black blouse and loose floral pants, made her way slowly around the hospital courtyard yesterday.
Nazanin, an Iranian asylum seeker who was allegedly raped on Nauru in May.
And that's the only good news Ian Rintoul, from the Refugee Action Coalition, can give Australians who care about asylum seekers.
Nazanin, the 23-year-old Iranian asylum seeker, who was allegedly raped on Nauru, who refused to eat, who tried to take her own life, was – finally -- medically evacuated from Nauru to an Australian hospital last month to receive the kind of medical help she could never have received on the island.
Rintoul visited her first on Saturday and then again on Tuesday afternoon this week and he said she was able to go for a brief walk with the aid of a crutch.
"She's mobile now but has difficult walking," he said. "There will need to be a lot of physiotherapy for her to get the strength she needs in her legs again."
But it wasn't so much her physical condition which worried him. Earlier concerns that she might need to have an operation seem to have been allayed.
"She is anxious, she is fearful, concerned about being separated from her mother and brother . . . they have very little contact, just two or three minutes at a time . . . the phone calls are short and difficult."
And he says that as he sat with her, there were long periods where she would not – or could not – talk.
"There are clearly times when the words don't fill the space."
This is a young woman in a terrible state. As an asylum seeker, she is not permitted to have a mobile phone. No 'boat arrivals' are permitted to have mobile phones. There are no regular communication arrangements between Nauru – where her mother and brother are - and the hospital in which Nazanin is staying, so she waits anxiously for a call, whenever they can get permission to ring.
Nazanin's condition is of serious concern, says Alanna Maycock, tuberculosis specialist nurse and the refugee coordinator for the Children's Hospital at Westmead. Maycock says that Nazanin's story has attracted much media attention – and that there are many many other women who have been sexually assaulted on the island. And nothing changes.
She says that when she was on Nauru working as a nurse, women would disclose sexual assaults. But in conversation with her fellow health professionals, they would respond to allegations of rape doubting the veracity of the claims.
"How do we know that's true? This question was asked by members of the public in Australia. Of course we don't know because we didn't witness it but the conditions lend themselves to making women extremely vulnerable."
She says that women have to wash themselves and their babies in showers with no doors, with just flimsy pieces of fabric.
"And the guards are just sitting seven to ten metres away, watching. They can see clearly into the showers."
Her biggest fear is that Nazanin will be transferred back to Nauru, the scene of her alleged assault and her physical and mental deterioration, which will set back any recovery.
"The International Health and Medical Services (IHMS) should be stipulating that no woman, no child, who has suffered trauma should be forced back into detention . . . but I think there is no doubt she will be forced back to Nauru."
Maycock wants people to know that the UN said that in 2013 and again this year that torture is happening on Nauru.
"To treat this woman and throw her back into the lion's den is inhumane.
There isn't even security to protect her. - and IHMS, the health service contracted to treat, aligns itself with the government. . . . [thay have] a contract worth $1.3b.
"Is their duty of care to their patients or their loyalty to the government?"
Shortly after the introduction of the Border Force Act, the prospect of going to prison and leaving her two small children behind so terrified Maycock, she was silent. She'd signed a contract saying she would not speak out against the government but her conscience would not let her keep quiet. She's spoken out about the shocking treatment of asylum seekers but fears that IHMS will use other means to keep her quiet. Now she has been banned from visiting Nauru but she says she will continue to speak out.
There are two things which stay with her – the seven-year-old who pleaded with Maycock to share her story so she could leave detention with her family. And the young woman who'd been raped; and whose treating psychologist told her that she was wearing skimpy clothing and dressing provocatively. And who demanded to know: "Why didn't she cry out when she was being raped?"
Says Maycock: "That woman wasn't removed from Nauru, she is still there facing her aggressor."
She says that Nazanin should be able to stay in Australia and make a complete recovery; and believes that the support of her family is essential.
Which is why Ian Rintoul and RACS are working to make that happen. Nazanin now has access to legal representation, Dimi Iannaou from Maurice Blackburn.
Says Rintoul: "We are trying to get her brother and mother to Australia, that's central to her recovery."
And meanwhile, Maycock tucks her own children into bed each night.
"The asylum seeker children we treat in our clinic give me the courage to carry on but when i go home to my own children and tuck them into bed i become fearful and a sense of dread falls over me again."
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