Australian immigration detains Aussie flight attendant for 10mths, and maltreats her

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Saturday, February 5, 2005

AUSTRALIA — Australian immigration authorities have held a mentally ill Australian woman, Cornelia Rau (also known as Anna), against her will for over 10 months, at least two of them spent in high security, where she was reportedly isolated for 18 to 20 hours a day, subjected to 24-hour simulated daylight and deprived adequate legal or medical aid.

Volunteer advocates' requests for ministerial intervention, prompted by her clear distress and aberrant behaviour, went unanswered for seven weeks, while Ms Rau was held at South Australian Baxter Immigration Detention Center.
Baxter high security detention facility in South Australia (Photo: Project Safecom)

Isolation and sleep deprivation

Several days ago, refugee advocate Pamela Curr had visited and spoken with the woman, then unidentified and known only as Anna, and said "She exhibits psychotic symptoms, screaming and talking to herself at times, and screams in terror often for long periods especially when locked in the cell.

"Such is her terror of being put back into this cell that it takes six guards in full riot gear to manhandle her back into the room and close the heavy door."

"We have reports from witnesses that the guards are enjoying this aspect of Anna's behaviour," said refugee advocacy group at around the same time. [1]

One message from a fellow detainee posted on the refugee advocate website on January 24, said Ms Rau appeared to be "very, very sick".

"She takes her clothes off and wanders around in this all-male compound," the account read. "She screams obscenities, throws food at other detainees and smashes things."

According to Ms Curr, Ms Rau was being held in isolation in Baxter's dedicated 'Red One' isolation block for 18 to 20 hours a day, and in daylight conditions for 24 hours a day, a practice which has in the past been criticised because of use of isolation and sleep deprivation in Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs (DIMIA) facilities to coerce cooperation from inmates [2].

The Migration Act prevents anyone from acting on behalf of a detainee unless the detainee requests this in writing, and so chances of any improvement in Ms Rau's condition or welfare were slim. The Act makes no provision for cases such as this, where the detainee is no longer competent to make such a request. Mental ill health is a reported by-product of the DIMIA system of indefinite detention [3].

Refugee concern prompted search for identity

Fellow detainees became concerned for Ms Rau's welfare when immigration authorities failed to remedy her mental ill health, and were unable to identify her. Refugee advocates in contact with detainees then led a campaign to identify the woman, resulting in her family recognising her description.

Thirty-nine year old Qantas flight attendant Cornelia Rau had in fact been listed as a missing person with New South Wales (NSW) police since August of last year, after disappearing in March. A NSW police effort to find her in November failed to identify that she was being held by Australia's Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, meanwhile DIMIA was stumped as to the identity of their German-speaking prisoner.

The Immigration Department said it had gone to great lengths to identify of Ms Rau, contacting the police missing persons registry in Queensland, and several foreign governments, but not NSW police missing persons. "All the information provided by the woman led the department to believe she was an unlawful non-citizen. At no time did she state she was a permanent (Australian) citizen."

Papers, please

Aborigines at Coen in Far North Queensland had found Cornelia in a disturbed state on March 31 last year, and become concerned, taking her to police for her own safety. The Queensland Police failed to identify her and assumed she was an illegal immigrant since she spoke German. Instead of hospitalising Ms Rau, they handed her over to immigration officials, on April 5.

According to Ms Curr, when she spoke to Ms Rau at Baxter last month, "Her English was fine. She told me then she really wasn't in touch with reality, but there was a moment of clarity when she just wanted to get out of Baxter. I spoke to a detainee two days ago and he said her English was so good he thought she was an Aussie girl."

Ms Rau had arrived in Australia at the age of 18 months from Germany. Cornelia's sister Chris says, "The two groups who were kind to Cornelia in all this time were the two most downtrodden groups in society -- the Aboriginal people in Cairns and the refugees in Baxter. There's an irony in that".

Mental health in indefinite, high security detention

The Australian Federal Government Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC)'s Immigration Detention Centre Guidelines [4] state that, "Immigration detainees who are found to be severely mentally ill should be transferred to an appropriate facility as soon as possible."

The Immigration Department said she had been under mental supervision at all times. "A number of medical assessments were conducted by healthcare professionals, including doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists," a departmental spokesperson said.

Findings by a number of independent inquiries have shown that long term, indefinite detention, which is the norm within the Australian immigration system, has the unfortunate side effect of inducing mental health problems in individuals who were otherwise healthy on entering the system, and refugee advocates have pointed to this issue previously in cases involving non-citizens.

Countless human rights violations have been documented within DIMIA's system by the Federal Government's own policing body, HREOC, which has complained repeatedly for years that its recommendations are not being met. Principally, that the system of mandatory detention itself is an infringement of human rights and should be abolished, and that children (of whom there are currently 87 in detention [5]) should not be held in custody.

HREOC criticises the general lack of adequate mental health services, the use of isolation detention for behaviour management, detainees' restricted access to legal assistance and lack of information about the application process, their limited access to general information and contact with the outside world, including relatives, and the effects of such long term detention on the detainees, specifically on their mental health. [6]

Past publicised cases have shown detainees denied any legal avenues they do not explicitly ask for using correct legal/bureaucratic terminology [7]; failure to provide adequate medical assistance; and habitual isolation of troublesome detainees instead of meeting of their grievances.

HREOC has the ability to make recommendations only, and it is up to the Government to enforce, or not enforce them.

"It's pretty dangerous if you have Alzheimer's disease or you speak a second language right now," according to Labor immigration spokesperson, Laurie Ferguson. Mr Ferguson believed Queensland Police and the Federal Government had questions to answer, and that there should be an Inquiry.


As well as the personal cost to Cornelia Rau and her family and friends, each day a person spends in immigration detention costs the Department between $111 to $725 [8]. According to DIMIA, "Government policy is that, where practical, immigration detainees should be billed for the cost of their stay in detention." [9] It is not known whether the Department intends to bill Ms Rau.


See also

  • The following resource is a proof copy, the finalised version should be made available shortly. The url may need to be replaced by the time you read this. Look here to check for the final version.
Commonwealth of Australia. "Proof Committee Hansard: Senate - Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee Estimates (Additional Estimates)" — Commonwealth of Australia, February 15, 2005