The Guardian 16 February, 2005

The Cornelia Rau tragedy

Peter Mac

The tragic case of falsely imprisoned 39-year-old Australian, Cornelia Rau, has highlighted major defects in state and federal government policy regarding treatment of asylum seekers and the mentally ill.


In 1998 Ms Rau, a former Qantas flight attendant, joined a religious sect, the "personal development group" known as Kenja, in Sydney's Surry Hills. Subsequently (according to her sister Christine) evidence of schizophrenia began to appear.

This was manifested in a number of disappearances and life-threatening incidents, both in Australia and overseas. She subsequently ceased working for Qantas. With the assistance of medication she returned to work briefly in 2000, but was again forced to quit work.

In March last year, Ms Rau disappeared from the psychiatric unit of Sydney's Manly Hospital, without advising family or friends of her intentions.

Some time later she arrived at a remote Cape York hotel, and asked for accommodation, stating she was penniless. She used two German names, one being a composite of the names of two members of the Kenja group.

The next morning she was interviewed by police, who found she did in fact have money, and someone else's passport. She claimed she had entered Australia illegally, and was subsequently taken into custody by police and then immigration officials.

She was later transferred to a Brisbane jail. While there she was given a psychiatric examination, but despite evidence of erratic behaviour was found not to require psychiatric treatment. She was never charged with an offence, but nevertheless remained in jail for some six months. During this period her family had reported her missing, but because she had given a false name this proved of no avail. Ms Rau was then transferred to the Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia. There her mental condition began to deteriorate seriously. The response of the Centre authorities was to lock her up for most of the day.

This, of course, made things worse. For the brief periods of release from her cell, she would eat soil from the centre's compound, weep and remove her clothing. She fought with the guards when the time came to return to her cell, but they simply used more guards to overpower her and force her back to her cell. Her behaviour did not prompt the centre management to call for a proper psychiatric assessment.

Her details and photograph were published in South Australia, but apparently the Baxter Centre authorities did not notice them. Ms Rau might still have been in detention except for her fellow detainees, who alerted members of detainee support groups. She was subsequently recognised by her sister from a newspaper article. A few weeks ago, Cornelia Rau was finally reunited with her family.

Policy needs changing

Her case raises fundamental questions about government policy. These include not only our appalling record of treatment of asylum seekers, but also Australia's increasing neglect or mistreatment of people with mental illnesses.

Time after time it was Ms Rau's acquaintances who raised the alarm over her condition, only to be ignored or overruled by authorities. The police seem to have not taken into account the fact that schizophrenic patients are not lying, they simply cannot distinguish fantasy from reality.

And how is it possible that Queensland authorities issued a "no treatment" assessment? Were they not aware that those suffering from schizophrenia may appear perfectly normal one day but exhibit acute symptoms the next? Or could it simply be that their resources were insufficient to provide periodic reassessment, especially given the vast numbers of mentally disturbed people now at large in the community because of cuts made by various state governments to health budgets, and the downgrading or disposal of mental health facilities?

The Howard government has proposed an inquiry into Ms Rau's case, but insists it be closed in order to "protect her privacy"! It's themselves they are trying to protect and the various government authorities which bungled the handling of her case. Could it possibly be that they are actually concerned to keep "private" the culpability of government authorities, especially themselves?

Queensland Premier Beattie at least has had the decency to immediately apologise to Ms Rau and her family, but in typically despicable fashion Howard has refused to do so, lest it leave the government open to a claim for compensation. Treasurer Peter Costello has more recently apologised, distancing himself from Howard midst mounting tensions within Liberal Party ranks.

A compensation claim might well be an act of legal self-defence for the Rau family. The current Immigration Act renders Ms Rau potentially liable for the cost of her incarceration, which has been estimated at between $50,000 and $100,000!

Moreover, part of the reason for Ms Rau's plight lies with the whole detention system, which the Howard government has striven to place beyond the reach of judicial review. And just to be sure of this, the government has signalled its intention to restrict the role and influence of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities investigators, whose recent report on the detention centre system unequivocally slams the Howard government.

Even on the inquiry's narrow terms of reference, the government is skating on thin ice. The Minister for Police and Justice is investigating the possibility of using the new nationwide Crimtrac computerised record system to trace missing persons.

However, as its name suggests this system was designed for tracking criminals. Apparently the Howard government has not previously considered introduction of a nationwide database of missing persons. A new national missing persons unit in Canberra appears to simply rely on information provided by the states, which all have different record systems. The Rau case demonstrates that the unit did not have comprehensive information from the states on their missing person records.

Under the current system it is entirely possible for an Australian resident without means of identification to be forcibly admitted to a detention centre. The current Immigration Act states that an immigration officer "may require a person they reasonably suspect to be a non-citizen to prove who they are and their visa's status, and if they don't produce evidence of that they can then be detained".

ID cards

Rather than change the Act, there are signs that the government may use the Rau case to argue for a repressive ID system using DNA and facial recognition going much further than the Hawke government's rejected Australia Card.

And then there is the question of the effect of detention on the mental health of detainees. Cornelia Rau's condition was exacerbated by her imprisonment in a Queensland jail, but detention in the Baxter centre was the ultimate disaster. The history of the detention centres is rife with cases of mental illness bought about by incarceration, especially with no release date and no promise of acceptance of refugee status.

Under the current regime, a detainee has to request assistance from psychiatric professionals before this is forthcoming, even if the service is provided pro bona. And even then the Immigration Department has the final say in whether the individual receives the treatment offered.

As one commentator recently noted, retention of the present policy will see Australia continuing to lock up people, thus keeping them "out of sight and out of mind".

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