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You will have probably heard of the young unknown Australian woman who had been found wandering the streets of Dublin. Originally assumed to be a European teenaged victim of sex trafficking, her identity was finally established after the release of her photograph as a 25-year-old Australian woman with psychiatric difficulties. In spite of her being a known overseas citizen and no longer believed to be a child, the Irish High Court has ruled that she continue to receive care from Irish children’s services, stating that she was highly vulnerable.

What would have happened though, if it were an Irish woman in Australia? I am not sure how far things have changed, but during the Howard era, she almost certainly would have ended up at in a detention centre.

Cornelia Rau was a terribly disturbed woman who turned up in Cape York claiming to be German, but with details which differed every time she spoke. She was taken to the Cairns lock up by police, who contacted the Department of Immigration (DIMIA) for advice. In a conversation with the honourary German consul in Cairns, Cornelia gave a crazy story that should have alerted all concerned that she was mentally ill:

She spoke to Anna for two hours in German and discovered that she had made it to Australia by walking across China, hiring a Russian people smuggler for 1,000 euros, then being delivered by boat from Indonesia to a place near Darwin off the Australian coast. She might just as well have claimed she had come from Mars.

(Robert Manne, The Unknown Story of Cornelia Rau, linked above)

A week after she was apprehended, she was locked up in a Brisbane jail on suspicion of being an “unlawful non-citizen”. Clearly, this was to do with the deep-seated culture of distrust of potential asylum seekers. Her story was inconsistent, and therefore it was assumed that she was ‘lying’ in order to not be deported from Australia. Rau was not lying: she was simply stating her reality.

Rau ended up incarcerated for a total of six months in Brisbane Jail and a further four at the Baxter Detention Centre, before her case was highlighted in an article in The Age, and her family recognised the description.

It goes without saying that Cornelia’s time in detention did nothing to improve her mental situation.

The second case is that of Vivian Alvarez Solon. Vivian had married an Australian and became a citizen in 1986, but became mentally ill. She was found injured, possibly after an accident, in Lismore in 2001. She was dirty, unkempt, looked foreign, seemed to have no Medicare card and now was gravely crippled. As soon as it was physically possible, they had her on a plane to Manilla and, loading her into her wheelchair, just dumped her in Manilla airport. Luckily for Vivian, after spending 2 days in a hallway, she was taken in by the Missionaries of Charity in a hospice, where she at last received some loving care.

Meanwhile, the police were trying to find the missing mother of Vivian’s son. It wasn’t until 2003 that a DIMIA staff member recognised the missing woman as the deportee, but then it was hushed up until 2005.

The Dublin mystery girl was originally assumed to be a trafficked child. Perhaps DIMIA would have sympathy for someone who was trafficked to Australia as a sex slave? No. Puangthon Simaplee was trafficked to Australia as a sex slave at the age of 12. She was picked up in a brothel raid at 27, unsurprisingly addicted to heroin. Noting that she was not a citizen DIMIA swooped, she ended up in Villawood Detention Centre, and was dead from an overdose within three days.

It is to be hoped that the fervour at DIMIA has diminished, or that something has been learned. Given that the Abbott government is back in, and that asylum seekers have been revived as the dominant scapegoat, and that we still fail to care for the people with mental health issues in Australia, the risk that more mentally ill people will be caught up in the detention system is great.