An Australian woman has just been released after spending 10 months in an immigration detention facility – right here in Australia.
Cornelia Rau has schizophrenia and wandered off from a Sydney hospital in March 2004. Later that month, she was found in Queensland by Aboriginals who were concerned over her state of mind. They handed over to police, who in turn handed her to the Immigration Department. She was speaking German (she came to Australia with her German family as a baby), prompting the authorities to assume she was an illegal alien.
Somehow, a search of the missing person’s database overlooked her case and she ended up in Baxter Detention Centre.
Despite the concerns of the asylum seekers, who noticed her Australian accent and recognised her signs of extreme distress, including eating dirt and tearing off her clothes, she remained in the desert centre for months without adequate psychiatric care.
Her family is being very gracious about the horrific situation:
“There’s no point trying to pass any blame at this point,” she [Ms. Rau’s sister, Cristine Rau] said.
“Obviously there are huge cracks in the system.”
“Before she even was mentally ill, she disliked introspection and solitude. Now she has spent 10 months virtually isolated from anybody who loves her.”
More on Ms Rau’s story here.
But this also brings up questions of the treatment of asylum seekers. Anyone who makes an “unauthorised entry” to Australia and asks for asylum is subject to mandatory detention while their case is reviewed. Refugees are often fleeing repressive regimes, so they already have issues of trauma and anxiety. Then they have to wait, often for months, and sometimes years while their case is looked at. Refugee advocates have spoken of the frustration felt by the asylum seekers, who are given no time-frame of how their case is progressing and the apparent obfuscation by the Immigration Department. This frustration has boiled over into anger and violence, both against themselves and the guards and detention centre buildings.
The refugee children see all this and some sink into depression and despair. One boy, Shayan, became withdrawn, refusing to speak and eat. When his plight was publicised , the then Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock declared that his condition was actually because of bad relations with his step-mother, calling him “it”. Psychiatrists begged to differ, citing the conditions to which his family were subjected to be the prime cause.
Somewhat predictably, the government is trying to contain the situation by declaring such questions as out of bounds and irrelevant to the Rau case. They have ruled out an apology to Ms Rau. However, there does need to be an investigation into how Ms Rau slipped between those cracks, and also into the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. Justice demands it, so more people do not suffer the same nightmare.