The Guardian 9 February, 2005
The shocking case of Cornelia Rau
The locking up of Cornelia Rau by the Queensland police and then by the immigration Department in the Baxter detention centre in South Australia is a direct result of the atmosphere of intolerance, neglect of individual rights and callous treatment created by the social policies of federal and state governments.
The answer of police and the Federal Immigration Department now appears to be to throw people into jail as the first option without considering their health or particular needs. In this case, they chose not to investigate the circumstances which led to Cornelia Rau wandering the country until she was taken in by the Aboriginal people of North Queensland.
The Immigration Department is notorious for its secretive and callous treatment of refugees, a number of whom have joined in the chorus of protest at the treatment of Cornelia Rau. That she had a serious health problem (schizophrenia) was quickly identified by most of those who came into contact with her — but not apparently by the authorities. Unfortunately, she fell into the hands of those who have been infected by the callousness resulting from the policies of the federal and state governments. They have fostered racist sentiments and actions against migrants and unleashed populist "law and order" campaigns.
Cornelia Rau had discharged herself from the Manly Hospital's psychiatric unit last March and went missing. She was locked up for six months in a Queensland jail (without being charged with any crime) and four months in Baxter without any treatment for her illness or charges. "The only treatment she received for mental illness was longer periods in lock-up as punishment for bad behaviour" wrote her sister in the Sydney Morning Herald (7/2/05). It is claimed that she was locked up in solitary confinement for up to 20 hours a day while at Baxter. Her age (39 years) was estimated by the authorities at only 18!
Cornelia Rau was notified to the NSW police as a missing person but this information, we are told, was not transmitted to other state police departments. One can only shake one's head at this incompetence — that such a failure could happen in this day and age of easy communication. Exchanges of information on many matters must surely take place regularly between state police authorities.
One can only speculate at the number of other inmates of Baxter and other Commonwealth run concentration camps who may have psychiatric or other medical conditions and are being treated similarly while in detention.
The Immigration Department is to arrange for an inquiry into Ms Rau's case, but who will conduct it and will its objective be to reveal the truth of this case and the state of affairs in all detention centres? Will it be used, yet again, as a means to cover-up the truth and excuse the authorities for their culpable behaviour? Has this case only come to light because Cornelia is an Australian citizen while others, such as refugees, continue to receive similar treatment without attracting the attention of the media? Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, by her remarks, has so far indicated that a cover-up is the more likely outcome. She wants the inquiry to be conducted behind closed doors to, so she claims, protect the privacy of Ms Rau!
There is yet another disturbing aspect of this case. For some years, State Governments have been systematically closing facilities for those with mental health disabilities and leaving them to fend for themselves in the community — with the support of seriously under-staffed services. Many of the patients released from or unable to gain places in mental health institutions are deprived of critical support and care.
As a consequence, many of those with psychiatric problems end up in the prison system. Jails are becoming de facto detention centres for people who should be receiving proper medical care in a hospital or other appropriate environment.
The parliamentarians behind the decisions that have led to the shocking experiences meted out to Cornelia Rau are responsible for creating a heartless bureaucracy.
Her treatment may have exacerbated her illness to the point where it cannot be reversed. Will Howard or Amanda Vanstone take any responsibility for that? So far they have not made any statement that indicates acceptance of responsibility, and so far they have refused to even indicate that they may be sorry for what has happened.