The Guardian 11 May, 2005

Wrongful detainee arrests:
now it's more than a hundred!


The ABC TV's Lateline program has revealed that more than a hundred people have been wrongfully held in Australian detention centres over the last three years.

The figure has been leaked from the government's secret inquiry into wrongful detention, which was prompted by the shocking case of German-speaking Australian Cornelia Rau. A schizophrenia sufferer, Ms Rau was discovered wrongfully incarcerated in Baxter Detention Centre last year by her sister, who had searched for her since her disappearance nine months earlier.

The inquiry, which was originally only required to examine a recent seven-month period, has now heard that another Australian was forcibly deported to the Philippines, her country of origin, in 2001.

The woman, who gave her name as Vivian Alvarez and spoke little English, had married an Australian and become an Australian citizen. However, he later abandoned her, after which she said she was imprisoned and forced to act as a sex slave in a Brisbane suburb. She escaped, only to be arrested after being injured in a traffic accident in Lismore, NSW.

Her story was so confused and appalling that she appears to have been deemed either mentally unwell or untruthful by officials prior to her deportation. And now, despite extensive (and belated) investigation by Australian officials, she has disappeared altogether.

Her case is not unique. According to Phil Glendinning, President of the human rights group, the Edmund Rice Centre, deportees are typically denied the chance to say goodbye to friends and relatives, and are frequently deported to countries where they have no connections. He commented bitterly: "When Australia deports people it hasn't got a clue about what happens to them."

As a result of the racism underlying government immigration policies, people with mental problems who speak foreign languages now appear to be at significantly greater risk of unlawful detention than other people.

Keith Wilson, a spokesperson for the Mental Health Council of Australia, commented: "On the basis of their mental illness, on the basis of their speaking a foreign language, they're at risk of being picked up, incarcerated and deported, even though they're Australian citizens."

It is not surprising that the government is holding the inquiry in secret. They describe this as necessary to protect victims and their families. However, lack of openness is emerging as one of the major factors in cases of wrongful incarceration, especially those involving people with mental disorders.

To date, the two most notable cases only came to light because of actions by concerned members of the community and by asylum seekers, not by government investigators. Ms Rau was discovered because sympathetic inmates described her plight to members of refugee support groups, who attracted media publicity to the case. Ms Alvarez's family only began to investigate the possibility of her unlawful detention after they heard of Ms Rau's terrible ordeal.

The decision to hold the inquiry in secret stems from political cowardice rather than compassion. Facing a potentially huge embarrassment over the inquiry's findings, acting Minister for Immigration, Peter McGauran, last week refused to answer media questions about the Filipina victim, and cancelled an ABC interview on the subject.

And now, just to cap the whole terrible business, a judge of the Federal Court has found that detaining asylum seekers for long periods at Baxter Detention Centre was surprise, surprise contributing to an alarming decline in their mental condition. The government had ignored psychiatrists' recommendations that two prisoners be transferred for treatment to Adelaide's Glenside Psychiatric Unit until just before the court was due to order that this be done.

One psychiatrist afterwards commented that continued incarceration was actually driving many detainees mad. Between 10 and 15 percent of Baxter inmates are believed to be taking anti- depressants. Visits by psychiatrists are infrequent, and one three-year-old child has had to be restrained from repeatedly banging her head against the wall.

Of course, some would rightly say that it is not just the one hundred detainees in question who have been wrongfully incarcerated, but the vast majority of those currently languishing in Australia's appalling detention camps. The government now stands condemned in the eyes of world's people for detaining so many people for months, or years, or even indefinitely, for the "crime" of arriving here without the appropriate papers.

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