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Minister comments on the detention of Cornelia Rau.



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This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.

 

It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.

 

For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.

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AM

 

Monday 7 February 2005

Minister comments on the detention of Cornelia Rau

 

TONY EASTLEY: The Prime Minister has now promised an inquiry into how a mentally ill Australian r esident spent eight months in immigration detention, the last four in the Baxter detention centre in South Australia. 

 

Cornelia Rau was released on Friday and transferred to Glenside psychiatric hospital in Adelaide. Mr Howard has dubbed it "a very regrettable incident" but has refused to offer an apology, citing legal implications. 

 

Cornelia Rau's sister says her family is not interested in suing the Government and doesn't blame Mr Howard, the Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, officials or any individual for the incalculable damage done to Cornelia. 

 

But she does fear the months of incarceration have "irretrievably tipped" her sister "over the edge". 

 

The Prime Minister says he'll speak to the Immigration Minister today about what type of inquiry will be conducted. 

 

The Minister, Senator Amanda Vanstone, is in our Canberra studio and is speaking here to Alexandra Kirk. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Good morning Minister. 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Good morning. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Firstly, how did it come to this, that a mentally ill Australian resident ends up in immigration detention for months on end, kept in solitary confinement for 18 hours a day? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, this is a very, very sad case. Ms Rau was picked up in Queensland having fled, as I understand it, from a health facility in New South Wales.  

 

She identified herself as a German citizen, she had a German accent, she spoke German, and she gave a very credible story as to where she came from, details of her family, of her boyfriend. German consul and German Consul-General were very helpful in trying to pursue this matter. 

 

While she was in the Brisbane Women's correctional centre, suspicions were raised clearly as to her mental health, because she was sent to Brisbane Hospital for a proper assessment.  

 

Unfortunately that proper assessment came back that while she had odd behaviour she did not exhibit the diagnosis for a mental illness, the diagnostic criteria for a mental illness. 

 

Not long after that she went down to Baxter with, incidentally, obviously the file came and we were aware that she had been recently assessed as not exhibiting the diagnostic criteria for mental illness. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But she was on a missing persons list, wasn't she?… 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: …Uh, I'm not sure… 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: …And nobody found that out… 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: … that she was at that time, because the advice that I have is that immigration, while they were trying to check her story vis a vis being German, were not ruling out the possibility that she was either an Australian permanent resident or citizen, they were checking with Centrelink, with Births, Deaths and Marriages, and did in fact contact the Queensland missing persons police with details and a photograph. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But she was on a missing persons list in New South Wales, so shouldn't they have checked interstate as well? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, police are responsible for missing persons. I don't know whether checks were made in New South Wales. I don't know if at that point she was on a missing persons list.  

 

This was in April last year, and I don't know whether when we provide that information to the police, if she's not on a list at the time, they keep it and do subsequent checks later, and an inquiry will tell us more about missing persons and identity.  

 

But for the purposes of this exercise, she had a very credible story, she had a stolen passport with her at the time, said she had no friends and family, and it was a desperately difficult task to find out who she was. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But the obvious… 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: …Well having, about the mental health issue, having had an assessment at a Brisbane hospital that she didn't exhibit the criteria for a mental illness, she was then sent to Baxter.  

 

Nonetheless, she saw a psychologist and GP within the first week. There was a recommendation that she see the psychiatrist. She saw the psychiatrist at the next available opportunity, which I think was if not within a month, a day or so of a month of her arriving. The psychiatrist recommended that she needed further assessment… 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: …But not treatment? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Uh, well, assessment. You've got to decide what the situation is before you can offer treatment, and as a consequence of that we were in contact with the South Australian mental health authorities.  

 

Now, I'm sure your listeners understand that it's a very serious thing for a GP or a psychiatrist to section someone, in other words, involuntary place them in a mental health facility. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But the problem is, isn't it, that the detainees themselves were the ones who raised the alarm bells, by saying that they were disturbed by her screaming, ripping her clothes off, smearing faeces on walls, eating dirt. And only then did her identity finally come to light. 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, it's not the detainees that raised the issue of her mental health. That was looked at by Queensland authorities, she was sent to a Brisbane hospital for assessment. As soon as she arrived in Baxter she was seeing experts - the GP, a psychologist, and then psychiatrist. 

 

And from that point on, we were in discussions with South Australian mental health authorities. Now… 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: …So for all these reasons, clearly something… 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: … the other detainees don't know that, and incidentally, neither do advocates. I know that advocates want to use her as a cause for them, and I understand that advocates want to be able to know the details of every case, but people, mental health patients, immigration detainees are entitled to privacy.  

 

The point is, from the moment she arrived at Baxter she was seeing a psychologist, and we were in negotiations with the South Australian mental health authorities. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Now, clearly a number of things went wrong here. So shouldn't the inquiry that's going to be set up be a public one? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, look, we'll consider those details over the day, or I hope in the next couple of days, perhaps this week. 

 

I think it is very important that Australians are assured of two things. Firstly, that if there are any gaps in the missing persons scheme that operates at the state level and between the states, we can fix those gaps, because she was a missing person at some point.  

 

We notified, presumably the family at some point notified, but we need to find out what went wrong there and fix that. And we also need to look at the mental health arrangements between immigration and state authorities to make sure that they're as good as they can be and there's nothing else that we could've done. 

 

Because I can assure you, that if there is something else we could've done, we'll make sure it doesn't happen again. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Now the Prime Minister has been given two opportunities to apologise and declined. Will you do that now? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, I think it's important, I agree with the Prime Minister, shouldn't we get the facts before we assume what the facts are? I mean, this is a very difficult situation… 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: But the Prime Minister says it's very regrettable. Why not go the next step and say… apologise? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: …Well of course it's regrettable, it is obviously a very sad case where someone with a pre-existing mental health condition presumably does not want to be detained in a mental health facility. She fled from there and gave a very credible alternative story.  

 

Now, the facts will come out, vis a vis an inquiry, but I don't think you just should assume first up what the facts are. Let's find out what they are, but we know that this is a very difficult situation with a client with a pre-existing mental health condition who halfway through was assessed by a Brisbane hospital as not exhibiting the criteria - diagnostic criteria - for a mental illness.  

 

Now that makes it, frankly, very, very hard when someone turns up, says they're German, comes from Germany, has no friends and family… 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: … Was the false passport a German passport? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: No, as I understand it was a stolen passport. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: According to the Rau family, it would be nice to get an apology. They're saying they're not litigious, but it would be nice also if you provided them with financial assistance with accommodation in Adelaide and follow-up treatment. Will you offer that? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Well, look, I need to get further information than I've already got, I'm not going to deal with this matter in a glib way on air for the benefit of sort of, infotainment. I regard this as a serious matter and I'll deal with it accordingly. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Now because Cornelia Rau is an Australian resident, not a citizen, she is liable for the cost of her detention, which refugee lawyers say could amount to somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000. Will that be waived now? 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: I can assure you we will not be doing that. 

 

ALEXANDRA KIRK: Amanda Vanstone, thank you. 

 

AMANDA VANSTONE: Pleasure. 

 

TONY EASTLEY: And the Minister was speaking there with Alexandra Kirk.