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February 08, 2005

strangers in our midst

Otherness is treated suspiciously by the national security state.It is becoming increasingly preoccupied with ensuring sameness in the form of 'illegal'. Those who are strange are quickly seen as illegals.


An example is Cornelia Rau, a schizophrenic who walked out of a mental institution in Manly, New South Wales, in March 2004 and ended up in Coen, North Queensland. In a bad way she was reported to the police by aboriginal people concerned by her obvious mental distress. Rau informed the police that she was an illegal German immigrant, and she is treated as an illegal non-citizen by the Queensland police in Cairns and the Commonwealth Immigration Department.

Despite being a permanent resident, a former Qantas airhostess, and mentally ill Rau spent six months in a Queensland jail. She was incarcerated by immigration authorities in Brisbane Women's Correctional Centre on April 5, 2004, where she remained until she was transferred to Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia on October 5.

There she was treated by a tough law and order regime. She is isolated for a week and locked in a room for 18 hours a day, despite exhibiting disturbed behaviour indicating mental illness, despite being the subject of a national appeal by the NSW police who were trying to find her.

So a mentally ill Australian permanent resident is wrongly held in a prison and detention centre. A mistake perhaps?

Possibly. If so, then the mistakes were serious. However, the real tragedy is that this is not an isolated case. It has happened over and over again. The Rau tragedy does not represent a failure of the system of immigration detention; it is a product of the system.

Difference as strangeness is increasingly being treated in terms of sameness of an ‘illegal’: a person in Australia unable to satisfy the authorities that he/she had a legitimate right to be here. What the Rau case shows that, as illegals have no human or civil rights, so they can be locked up in harsh prison conditions, denied contact with the outside world, and given little pyschiatric help.

The key problem lies with the immigration detention system and its harsh regime of surveillance and discipline. This regime has become disconnected from a duty of care. The crucial question how people in detention are treated, and the way their mental health problems are left inadequately addressed, and then exacerbated by the disciplinary regime.

Claire O'Connor, an Adelaide lawyer fighting to have three Baxter detainees moved to a psychiatric hospital, has said that:

They (the three detainees) said 'there's a poor woman here, she's screaming she's yelling, she's eating dirt and sometimes she runs around without her clothes on'...They told me that, but I can't go in to see anyone. No lawyer can go in to see anyone at Baxter who isn't already instructing them.

South Australia's Public Advocate, Jonathan Harley, says he spent more than two months trying to get authorities at the Baxter detention centre to look into the case of Cornelia Rau. He said that Ms Rau's plight came to his attention in December last year, but he was met with silence from the Department of Immigration and officials at Baxter and was forced to threaten legal action before they acted. The officials at Baxter did not act when Harley contacted them because as a state official he had no jurisdiction to intervene.
Update Jan 9
Commentary can be found over at DogfightAtBankstown at Troppo Armadillo and A Landownunder.

Documents tabled in Adelaide's Federal Court by Claire O'Connor, a South Australian Legal Services Commission lawyer, indicate that Group 4 Falck, the company that runs Australia's detention centres, and the Department of Immigration, had breached their duty of care by failing to provide adequate psychiatric care for three mentally ill Iranian men at the Baxter detention centre.

The incarceration regime works to undermine, break down the personality of the inmates, and then to drive them mad.Their protests become those of self-harm.

A reconstruction of Cornelia Rau's missing months in The Age. See Fixing Australia. An Australian was "lost in detention" for 10 months? If Cornelia's sister, Chris Rau, had not seen a report in The Age describing her sister's circumstances, then Cornelia Rau could have been detained at Baxter indefinitely without any rights.

As Peter Mares argues in The Age immigration detention has been

...deliberately constructed to be legally impregnable, precluding independent oversight or judicial review of the decision to lock people up....Detention is designed to be opaque, to prevent meddling by lawyers, human rights activists, priests, do-gooders, psychiatrists, public advocates, journalists and other busybodies who might concern themselves with the fate of detainees, their health and their treatment--the very kind of people who eventually managed to alert the Australian public to Cornelia Rau's situation.

The Rau tragedy is a product of the system.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 8, 2005 09:03 AM

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Tracked on February 9, 2005 06:44 AM


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