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Wednesday, 9 February 2005
Page: 53

Senator NETTLE (1:11 PM) —The story of Cornelia Rau is a terrible case of negligence and incompetence by the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, the company contracted to run the detention centres—GSL—and the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Senator Vanstone. It is incredible that behaviour which Aborigines in Cape York and asylum seekers in Baxter detention centre clearly identified as relating to a mental illness could be construed by the department of immigration as normal. It is even more incredible that the department and authorities at Baxter detention centre deemed it appropriate to lock up Ms Rau in the isolation unit.

The isolation unit of Baxter detention centre is a truly inhumane place. It exists in a high-security compound called Red One. The department of immigration refer to the isolation unit with the Orwellian term ‘the management unit’. Perhaps a more accurate name is the punishment unit. Under the law, only the courts are meant to inflict punishment; however, the Migration Act places immigration detention centres outside these normal conventions. Detention and the conditions for detainees are punishment. The minister will sometimes seek to deny this but then in the next breath will tell us that it is necessary as a deterrent to stop asylum seekers from coming here.

What is the isolation unit at Baxter detention centre like? The following is a description from a statement of claim in the case of an Iranian asylum seeker who spent time in the isolation unit. He said:

The Isolation unit consists of a small room approximately three metres square. It contains no furniture apart from a mattress. The walls are bare. There is an open doorway leading to a small bathroom. There is no view of anything outside the cell. The room is lit 24 hours a day. A closed circuit TV camera monitors and records the cell 24 hours a day.

The Iranian man who provided this description was kept in this cell for 23 hours a day, separated from his seven-year-old daughter, who was deported back to Iran without the chance to say goodbye to him. It is reported that Cornelia was in this isolation unit for 18 hours a day. In isolation there is no-one to talk to, no television to watch and no radio to listen to. The Iranian man held in isolation was not even allowed reading or writing material. This is virtually sensory deprivation.

Hassan, an asylum seeker from Algeria, spent nine weeks in the isolation unit. He said, ‘If the guards were good guards, they would let him out for fresh air for four hours a day. But if they were bad guards, they would let him out for only half an hour or an hour.’ Hassan also said that the guards would search his room at random times during the night and he was subjected to humiliating body cavity searches in front of female officials and the ever-present video camera.

Church worker Francis Milne, who visits detainees in Baxter detention centre, calls the conditions in the Red One section of Baxter ‘sheer torture; psychological torture’. Lawyers have claimed that such conditions constitute torture under article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. How many people would remain completely sane locked in this tiny room, suffering from these conditions for months on end? Not many, I suspect.

To throw a seriously mentally ill person into the isolation unit is not just incompetent; I believe it is criminally negligent. To keep her there whilst exhibiting psychotic behaviour is cruel and inhuman treatment. Having psychosis is a serious illness. It can involve delusions, terror and an inability to understand what is real and what is an hallucination. There is enough horror in having an untreated psychiatric illness in normal circumstances. Being locked up in the isolation unit of Baxter detention centre must be a schizophrenic’s worst nightmare.

There is one account of Cornelia waiting to attend the visitors centre. When she was scanned by the guards with a hand-held metal detector, she totally freaked. That appears to me to be an understandable reaction from somebody who has delusional paranoia. Did the guards try to calm her and get an immediate psychiatric assessment? No. Reportedly, she was manhandled back to her tiny cell in the isolation unit and the door was locked.

Minister Vanstone claims that Cornelia ‘didn’t exhibit the criteria for mental illness’. I can only assume that she is referring to the standard criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that is published by the American Psychiatric Association, which is used by most Australian psychiatrists. The purpose of this manual is to define various psychotic problems and normal reactions according to clear criteria. I understand it is a manual that proves extremely useful for psychiatrists in their daily work, but it should not be used to prove an absence of mental illness for forensic or political purposes. In fact, the writers of the manual were very much aware that people may seek to gain political advantage and could attempt to use the manual for a purpose for which it was not intended. In the introduction to the manual, the authors say:

When the DSM-IV categories, criteria, and textual descriptions are employed for forensic purposes, there are significant risks that diagnostic information will be misused or misunderstood.

The Aborigines in Cape York and the detainees in Baxter probably do not have access to the criteria set out in this manual. But they knew a sick woman when they saw one. It is extraordinary that the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the department of immigration were unable or perhaps unwilling to provide a human response in the 10 months that Cornelia was under their care. The mentally ill deserve appropriate treatment whether they are Australian citizens or asylum seekers in detention. To deny them appropriate treatment and indeed to aggravate their illness through mismanagement is a clear abrogation of human rights.

Refugee advocates were expressing concern to the department and to the minister about Cornelia’s case as early as 9 December. Detainees at Baxter have said that they approached the guards from the first day that she arrived. They told them, ‘This woman is really, really sick,’ but the guards ignored their pleas for action and apparently told them to ‘eff off’. The Director of Mental Health in South Australia, Dr Jonathan Phillips, pushed for two weeks to have Ms Rau psychiatrically assessed. DIMIA refused. The public advocate pressed for two months for an examination of Ms Rau’s case but was rebuffed by DIMIA officials that he described as the most arrogant he has encountered in his 40 years in public office.

The minister cannot claim ignorance in this case. The department of immigration cannot claim that it acted responsibly. The minister must issue an apology immediately, as should the Prime Minister, and appropriate compensation should be arranged for Ms Rau and her family. Unfortunately, Ms Rau’s case is not an isolated incident. It is just a snapshot of the cruelty that occurs behind the razor wire of our immigration detention centres.

I have visited the detainees in Baxter detention centre and I have heard their stories. Every day I receive correspondence from Australians who have befriended asylum seekers and who are horrified by the treatment that their new friends are receiving. On several of my visits to detainees held at the Villawood detention centre, I met a Palestinian man who has been in detention for over three years and who obviously appears to suffer severe and debilitating depression. He rarely leaves his room, he refuses to talk about his case and he often does not come out to visitor areas. He is a stateless man and has very good reasons for release, if only he would let an advocate lodge a case on his behalf. Unfortunately, he refuses to let anybody help him. Under this government’s detention regime he has no prospect of release and must suffer with his illness until we have a government that acts with compassion and dignity, not brutality and cruelty.

Two separate studies into mental illness and immigration detention have concluded that almost all long-term detainees suffer from at least one mental illness. The studies found that the detention exacerbated existing mental illness and trauma and, worse still, made the majority of detainees, including young children, mentally ill. Dr Louise Newman, chairwoman of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, has called Baxter detention centre ‘a de facto psychiatric hospital’. If Cornelia Rau’s experience is an example of the level of care that is provided in such a facility, it is one that should be shut down.

Wayne Lynch was a former nurse at Woomera detention centre and he has stated that it is detention itself that is driving people mad. He says, ‘When you take away their privileges, incarcerate people, you humiliate them, you physically and emotionally assault them and deprive them of the very basics of life, anyone is going to go mad in that situation.’ The Rau case has exposed an immigration detention regime that is systematic in its neglect of detainees and its abuse of human rights and that strips asylum seekers of their dignity and mental health. Detention itself is the problem.

The horrors of the detention centres are the predictable result of constructing a system beyond the scrutiny of the public and media, one that is outside the normal operations of the law. Over the past few years we have had a series of court rulings that tell us that otherwise unacceptable and illegal behaviour is acceptable under the Migration Act. Indefinite detention without charge is allowable. The detention of children is allowable. The deportation of people, even with the knowledge that they face danger and persecution on arrival, is allowable. The Migration Act has constructed a class of people called ‘unlawful noncitizens’ who do not have the basic legal protections and rights that Australians enjoy.

The government knows that the conditions inside the detention centres are not acceptable to the Australian public. That is why it seeks to hide them, away from scrutiny. That is why detention centres are constructed in the desert and on remote islands. That is why it only allows journalists highly restricted access, if at all, to detention centres. And it is why the government refuses to hold the proper public and judicial inquiry that everybody is demanding into the Cornelia Rau case and the treatment of people with a mental illness in our detention centres.

When the presumption of innocence is turned on its head and prisons are kept from proper scrutiny, we inevitably get abuse of power and human rights. It happened at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, it has happened in Guantanamo Bay and it is happening at Baxter, Nauru and other places with detention centres. An inquiry must examine the conditions of all people in mandatory detention. Everybody, whether they are an Australian citizen, a resident or a noncitizen, is entitled to quality health care, dignity, human rights and justice. An inquiry must be transparent, independent and public. A judicial inquiry with broad terms of reference which can take evidence from a wide variety of sources is the only appropriate form of inquiry. Such an inquiry, I am sure, will reveal the full extent of the inhumanity of mandatory detention and why it must be abolished.